As students across New Brunswick return to classrooms this week, advocates worry about how the Department of Education's new gender-identity policy will impact First Nations students.
Earlier this summer, N.B. Education Minister Bill Hogan made it mandatory for schools to get parental consent before verbally using the chosen names and pronouns of students under the age of 16.
That was a change to a policy introduced in 2020 to guarantee minimum support for 2SLGBTQ students, including ensuring that teachers use students' preferred pronouns and that gender-neutral washrooms are available.
John Sylliboy, executive director of the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance, described removing protections for two-spirit and LGBTQ children in classrooms as "a form of violence."
"From a Wabanaki or Mi'kmaw perspective, if we interrupt the proper development — culturally, spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically — of a child then they are going to be unbalanced and that will cause long-term impacts on their health," said Sylliboy.
The Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance is a non-profit organization aimed at supporting Indigenous 2SLGBTQ people in Atlantic Canada.
Sylliboy said New Brunswick's education system hasn't done enough to honour Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqey knowledge, which recognizes that a person can explore gender and sexual identity throughout their life and at different stages.
Whether or not First Nations children are subject to the policy change depends on where they go to school. Schools that operate in First Nations communities are not required to follow the policy as they do not fall under provincial jurisdiction.
However, not all First Nations have their own schools. Felicia Mae Galbraith, director of education for Oinpegitjoig (Pabineau First Nation), 173 kilometres north of Moncton, said all 52 students from her community attend provincially run schools.
"I worry about how it's actually going to impact LGBTQ students because the reality is, if you have to contact the parents to inform them about the gender identity or sexual orientation, you might be putting that student in danger," said Galbraith, who is L'nu from Pabineau First Nation.
Felicia Mae Galbraith, education director of Pabineau First Nation, is worried about how the provincial policy changes will affect 2SLGBTQ students attending schools off-reserve. (submitted by Felicia Mae Galbraith)
Galbraith said she is planning to add more community 2SLGBTQ programming and workshops to support students and hopes the province reconsiders its changes to Policy 713.
"The well-being of the students is the most important thing and they should really consider the safety issue of this policy because in practice, I don't think it is a very safe policy for our students," said Galbraith.
In order to support students, Sylliboy said the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance will offer online safe spaces and will partner with other 2SLGBTQ groups to advocate to reverse the policy change.