Catholic board's transgender policy misses mark, Edmonton mom says

The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s proposed policy on gender identity will be given first reading on Tuesday.

Province-wide policy needed to protect rights of transgender students and staff, mom says

The seven-year-old girl at the centre of the transgender controversy hugs Catholic school board trustee Patricia Grell. CBC has agreed not to identify the girl. (CBC)

After a seven-year-old transgender girl from Edmonton won the right to use the girls' washroom at school, she asked her mother for a guarantee.

"She had said, 'Mama, actually I need to see that in writing first," recalls her mother with a mixture of pride and heartache, who feels her daughter does not have the same rights as her classmates.
Transgender activist Marni Panas said provincial guidelines would take pressure off of school boards. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC News )

"To date, I haven't been able to provide that to her," said the mother of the girl, who CBC has agreed to not identify for fear of discrimination. "But she, I think in her own little way, is just as suspicious."

On Tuesday, the Edmonton Catholic school board's proposed policy on gender identity will be given first reading.

It's the result of a four-month battle between school staff and district administration with the girl's mother, who wants her daughter, born a boy, to have the right to use the girls' bathroom.

But the mother said the proposal will do little to protect the rights of her daughter or other LGBTQ students.

Mom urges provincial policy

She is urging Education Minister David Eggen to create a province-wide policy protecting transgender students' right to decide which washroom or change room they use.

"The decision needs to be taken away from the trustees," she said. "They have proven time and time again that, collectively, they cannot make a sound decision that aligns on the side of human rights rather than archaic religious principles."

Among her concerns, the policy will not safeguard against the bias of trustees such as Larry Kowalczyk, who said transgender people are mentally ill, she said.

"It worries me that you have a trustee that is openly a bigot, you have priests and clergy that agree with him," she said.

She said a recent meeting between the board and representatives of the Edmonton Archdiocese could influence policy that should have "no religious perspective."

She's also concerned that regulations stemming from the policy would be developed by superintendent Joan Carr, who she said told her more than once that her daughter was not to use the girls' washroom.

Contrary to teachings of church

Carr is on the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta, which distributed a document meant to guide policy that states gender transitioning "is contrary to the teachings" of the Catholic church.

Carr's involvement is also a concern to Marni Panas, a transgender woman and parent with a child in the Edmonton Catholic school system.

"These guidelines will be written by a superintendent and administration who already have a clear history of not being particularly inclusive and addressing this issue appropriately," she said.

"I don't have a lot of faith in their ability to create guidelines that are in the spirit of what we're looking for in this policy."

The draft also makes no mention of protections for LGBTQ staff.

"That's quite concerning, because we do have a history in this province of Catholic school boards firing transgender people," Panas said. 

"I probably wouldn't even be allowed to apply for a job there."

She said provincial guidelines would take pressure off school boards, eliminate the challenge of religion and rely on evidence-based best practices.

"Most importantly, we don't have to have this fight with every single school board for years," Panas said.

'Children continue to be hurt'

"While school boards go without a policy like this, children continue to be hurt."

In an email, Eggen said he and his staff have been given assurances the board is "working towards a policy that will provide support for transgender students."

He said he would wait until Tuesday to comment on the policy's lack of protection for LGBTQ staff.

When asked if he would rule out a province-wide policy, he wrote, "We are keeping all options on the table."

Neither Carr nor board chair Debbie Engel have responded to requests for comment.

The board's draft policy will be given first reading on Tuesday, followed by a consultation period before a second reading Nov. 24.

Meanwhile, the mother of the girl dreams of the day she can fulfil her daughter's request and provide a written guarantee that "you will never have anybody questioning you about which bathroom, which locker room, which sports team.

"There's nothing more discouraging than looking into a little kid's face and seeing hurt and pain."