Who would have thought that the sleepy Canadian maritime province of New Brunswick would become the bleeding edge of a North America-wide ‘culture war’? Yet, that’s exactly where we are after the Blaine Higgs-led Conservative government of the province introduced legislation to alter educational Policy 713, which codifies students’ freedom to gender identity and expression, including the ability to participate in sporting spaces that align with that identity.
The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s Policy 713 was implemented on August 17, 2020 in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the New Brunswick Human Rights Act. Among other important protections (some of which have also been rolled back by the Higgs administration), the Policy explicitly states, “All students will be able to participate in curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular activities that are safe, welcoming, and consistent with their gender identity.” Such activities self-evidently include sport.
Yet, in a revision dated June 8, 2023, this section now reads, “All students will be able to participate in curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular activities that are safe and welcoming.” This change explicitly removes the protection for sports participation based on gender identity, creating too much room for interpretation amid a cultural climate rife with anti-trans sentiment.
Indeed, the assault on Policy 713 must be understood within the broader context of political transphobia that has swept the continent, particularly in the United States, wherein former President Trump has said the proverbial quiet part out loud, noting, “It’s amazing how strongly people feel about that. I talk about cutting taxes, people go like that [politely claps], I talk about transgender, everybody goes crazy. Five years ago, you didn’t know what the hell it was.”
Importantly, as virulent as the campaign against trans people has been in the United States, including state-level legislation prohibiting gender-affirming care for children in 19 states that criminally sanctions parents for supporting their children’s identities in material ways, it is the participation of trans athletes in sports that has often augured the most publicly-palatable entry into these campaigns. Some 22 states have passed legislation barring trans women from participation in women’s sport and University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became a national spectacle as platforms like Fox News touted her putatively ‘unfair’ advantage.
It is clear that the Higgs regime is attempting to ride the same wave with its legislative changes and active attempts to promote those changes to a national audience via social media, for instance in a post with over a million views on Twitter, a move not coincidental with a change to a new right-wing media relations firm.
Importantly, there has been pushback. The governing body of high school sport in the province, the New Brunswick Interscholastic Athletic Association (NBIAA) has issued a statement reiterating its policy that “Any transgender and/or non-binary student athlete may participate fully and safely in gender-separated sports activities in accordance with their gender identity.”
This is an issue all Canadians should be watching. At the end of the day, sport is never more important than the basic and legally-enshrined human right to gender identity and expression. Since trans women are and must be understood to be women, they deserve and require access to all women’s spaces, including sport. This fact is most important for vulnerable children at the highest risk of mental health crisis and even suicide (trans youth are five times more at risk). As the NBIAA states in its Organizational Core Values, youth sport exists to “facilitate the positive development of student-athletes” and “foster inclusiveness and equity.”
The government of NB must reverse its changes and reinstate the important language in Policy 713 protecting the right of trans children to participate in sport.
More than sport is at stake.
Nathan Kalman-Lamb is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick.