Tories’ silence is golden on trans issues, but might not be sustainable

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As his party’s numbers climb, Pierre Poilievre has to be careful to appeal to voters leery of social conservatism.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 25, 2023.

OTTAWA—Protests and counter-protests on the rights of children to use their chosen pronouns were held across the country last week.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh led a counter-protest in Ottawa, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to X (formerly Twitter) to condemn “hate and its manifestations,” and reiterate his support for the 2SLGBTQ+ community across Canada.

Not surprisingly, Conservative Members of Parliament were silent on the issue, with the Canadian Press reporting that the leader’s office had told them not to discuss the protests with the media or on social media outlets.

A memo, shared with CP, was sent from the leader’s office claiming that protesters against LGBTQ education in the schools have a legitimate point to make about “parental rights.”

Heated clashes in cities across the country led to arrests in Halifax, Vancouver, Victoria, and Ottawa. The issue is heating up as governments in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have introduced legislation requiring students to get their parents’ permission before teachers can address them in their preferred he/she/they pronoun.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s office may not be able to stop Members of Parliament from weighing in when so many of them were elected thanks to support they received from social conservatives who do not support LGBTQ education in schools. The fact that the opposition leader is trying to keep a lid on comments shows that he understands the issue is a political hot potato that will win his party no new supporters.

As his party’s numbers climb, Poilievre has to be very careful to appeal to voters who are leery of social conservatism. Chances are the solidarity of potential power will not be enough to silence those in the caucus who got their political feet wet on recruiting social conservatives.

It is no coincidence that when Leslyn Lewis first ran for her party’s leadership in 2020, she was the first choice of Saskatchewan Tories. She swept the province where the premier and his government have recently enacted legislation to prevent minors from changing their pronouns without their parents’ permission.

Anti-trans rallies were organized across Canada last week by a group identifying itself as the “One Million March For Children,” which said it stood against gender ideology. But the marches were countered by groups defending the rights of 2SLGBTQ+ youth. Some are concerned that adolescents should not be outed to parents, and others wanted to support those teenagers who have self-identified as trans or gay.

Hate crimes against the gay community are on the rise, according to a report by Statistics Canada released last December. The report stated that police-reported hate crimes increased by 60 per cent between 2019 and 2021, reaching their highest level in five years.

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised to change the sex education curriculum when he was courting socially conservative voters during his leadership campaign. However, while in government, he was accused of re-introducing a sex education curriculum that was virtually identical to the one he had criticized during his campaign. Ford learned quickly that modifying sex education is probably not a top-of-mind priority for most Ontarians.

Poilievre is likely discovering the same challenge at the federal level. But how is he going to be able to stop his right-wing caucus members from aligning themselves with the thousands who rallied across the country against sex education involving the 2SLGBTQ+ community? The temperature is rising on both sides, so it is difficult to see how the Conservatives are going to be able to stay out of the fray.

And when the leader of the New Democrats makes it his business to lead the counter-demonstration, he obviously understands the political issues at stake.

Most Canadians don’t really involve themselves in the adolescent pronoun debate. However, they do support rights for the LGBTQ community. With the advent of same-sex marriage and support for choice in sexual orientation, most people appreciate the wave of equality that has evolved in the past two decades.

But the small percentage of people who oppose transgender teaching in schools has unleashed the wrath of the silent minority. The number of parents and grandparents who showed up last week to support their transgender progeny could translate into a significant voting bloc in the next election.

If the issue provokes enough interest, it will actually move votes in the next election. Therein the reason why the Tories don’t want to be on the record with any comment when it comes to transgender policies in local school sectors.

Their political silence is golden. But it may not be sustainable.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.