PC Leader Heather Stefanson stays mum on details of parental rights pledge at leaders debate
When pressed, Stefanson wouldn't say whether policy would include rules for pronouns, name changes
Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson didn't budge when asked at a debate on Monday whether her party's promise to enhance parental rights in schools would include rules around students using different names or pronouns in the classroom.
"We believe that parents know what's in the best interest of their children, and that they have a right to be informed at school with what is happening so that they can make the decisions for their children," Stefanson said when asked at a live leaders debate on Winnipeg radio station CJOB whether her party would introduce similar rules to ones in provinces like Saskatchewan.
The PC campaign promise was first announced last month, when it was applauded by some but drew criticism from others who noted parallels with rules introduced recently in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick that prevent schools from using the chosen names and pronouns of children under the age of 16 without parental consent.
Stefanson was asked directly multiple times during Monday's debate whether the changes her party is proposing would mirror those in other provinces.
While she said she thinks parents have a right to be informed about things like pronoun changes at school, Stefanson wouldn't say whether schools would be required to receive parents' consent to use their kids' chosen names and pronouns, instead saying the details would be decided through consultations.
Along with NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, Stefanson fielded questions at the debate on issues ranging from health care to crime to the economy.
At one point, the leaders were asked to answer whether they would describe addictions in Manitoba as a crisis. While both Kinew and Lamont said yes, Stefanson described it instead as a "significant challenge" — saying she doesn't want to "alarm Manitobans by sensationalizing things."
At an announcement later Monday, Stefanson again declined to provide specifics about her party's parental rights promise and said it comes in response to hearing from parents who want more of a say in what happens in their kids' classrooms.
"They feel a little bit like they're left in the dark. And they want to be part of what is going on with their kids in schools, and we believe they have a right to that," she said.
She previously said while parents' rights are enshrined in Manitoba's Public Schools Act, that legislation hasn't been updated since 1996 and doesn't include things like texting and cyberbullying.
The party has outlined four rights for parents it wants to add if re-elected: the right to be informed about curriculum, to be involved in addressing bullying and other behavioural changes, to have advance notice about presentations by anyone outside the school system, and to have to consent before any image of a child is made, shared or stored.
Need for parental voice, safe space for kids: voters
Voters who shared their thoughts in a recent election focus group were torn on the issue.
Jeff Burtch from Oakbank, Man., said he agrees with the PC pledge.
"I think there has to be that parental voice in the upbringing of your own children. They are growing, they are learning. You have to guide them," said Burtch, who was one of nine voters from outside Winnipeg who shared their thoughts in the focus group — a collaboration between CBC Manitoba and Probe Research.
The polling company identified potential participants from its panel and then randomly selected nine people to ensure a mix of people reasonably representative of Manitoba's demographics.
Laura Bowler from Treherne, Man., said she was extremely opposed to the policy, saying research shows having a supportive environment for LGBT students at school is beneficial — and having an unsupportive parent weighing in can be "extremely harmful for potentially the only safe space that that child has."
Substitute teacher Diana Neuman, who lives on a farm near McCreary, Man., said she's sympathetic to parts of both arguments.
"It's about treating the kid in a way that's gentle and supportive for the kid, but I really am against leaving parents out of the loop," she said.
"It's possible to care about parental rights and care about the kids. It's not one or the other. And I don't understand why that conversation always comes down to this or this…. It shouldn't be a political thing."
Opponents accuse PCs of creating divisions, fear
NDP Leader Kinew and Liberal Leader Lamont stood in opposition to Stefanson's stance on the issue at the debate.
At a news conference later Monday, Kinew said the issue distracts from what Manitobans are really worried about.
"Every moment that the PCs succeed in getting us to talk about these wedge issues that they're pulling up is one more moment that we're not talking about your No. 1 priority, which is fixing the health-care system," he said.
Meanwhile, Lamont accused the Tories of "importing Republican arguments from the deep south of the U.S." to try to scare people with a problem that doesn't exist in the final weeks before the Oct. 3 election.
"This is suggesting that the school system that the PCs run themselves and have been running for seven years has a problem in it. Well, why didn't they fix it seven years ago?" he said in a phone interview.
With files from Alana Cole