'It's really freeing to be yourself:' Whitehorse teenagers rally for LGBTQ+ student support

Yukon’s legislature is debating a bill that would shore up mental health and social supports for LGBTQ+ students.

The bill has had a second reading in the legislature, but has not yet come to a vote

Students from Porter Creek Secondary School gather outside Yukon's legislative assembly to voice their support for a bill that would require some LGBTQ2S+ programming in all of the territory's schools. This week, the bill passed the Legislative Assembly. (CBC/Danielle d'Entremont)

Yukon's legislature is debating a bill that would shore up mental health and social supports for LGBTQ+ students.

The bill, introduced by NDP MLA Emily Tredger, would require all Yukon schools to establish and support in-school activities for LGBTQ+ youth. 

"[The bill] really started with conversations I had with students … who told me how important it was to them to have a safe space in their school," said Tredger. "Some of them have communities and families that are supportive, and some of them don't. So it was incredibly important to them that when they came to school, they had a place they could connect with their peers, a place that they knew they had a supportive teacher.

"And they were worried that their peers didn't have all that."

'I felt way more accepted'

Some schools in the territory — like Porter Creek Secondary School, in Whitehorse — already have programs like the "Rainbow Room," a place where students can find affirmation and support, and connect with their peers. 

On Wednesday, students from Porter Creek Secondary School gathered outside the territory's legislative assembly to voice their support for the bill. 

They brought rainbow flags, colourful signs and a host of arguments for why all students in the territory should be able to find affirming, welcoming spaces at school. 

Fourteen-year-old Nari Barker said the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) program at Porter Creek changed their life. 

"I started hanging out in the Rainbow Room [and] I felt way more accepted and a little less bullied," they said. 

Fellow student Akaria Thorsteinson also said the Rainbow Room helped them feel free to be themself at school. 

"I had to hide who I really was," said Thorsteinson. "I had to put up a mask and fake identity, pretty much, from who I really am. 

"It's really freeing to be yourself."

Tredger says Porter Creek is only one of many schools in the territory that offer strong support to their LGBTQ+ students — but the current approach is "a bit piecemeal," and too many students are missing out. 

"If there happens to be a teacher and a supportive administration in a school, then something gets started [and] hopefully, maybe some other teacher will carry it on," Tredger said. "But maybe that teacher will move away, and it won't be there anymore. And some teachers might not, or some schools might not, have a teacher who has the ability to take it on.

"So it's just dependent on which school you go to — but we know our kids need support no matter where they go."

Tredger says programs like this can make a big difference for students' academic future, health and well-being. 

"When we don't have explicitly safe places … we lose students from classes," said Tredger. "We lose students from schools. And in the worst-case scenario, we lose students altogether."

'This could happen at my school'

Yukon's education minister, Jeanie McLean, has also voiced support for expanding the resources available to LGBTQ+ students, as the government follows up on its action plan to make the territory more inclusive of diverse genders and orientations.

"We're working to make sure that all Yukon schools follow this policy and that all students are treated with the respect they deserve," said McLean. "We're updating this policy as part of the government's work to modernize and improve services and policies for Yukoners and the LGBTQ2S+ community."

On Wednesday, the bill went through its second reading as students looked on — but it did not come to a vote. 

This means it will need to be reintroduced in the coming weeks. 

And Tredger is hoping this will happen sooner rather than later. 

"I've heard stories of kids bursting into tears and saying 'this could happen at my school,'" she said. "I've talked to parents who have been trying to figure out how to get support for their kids without trying to single them out. I've talked to teachers who have been trying to make this happen at their school but haven't really had a lot of support to do it. So I think it's so important that it passes."

With files from Danielle d'Entremont