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Higgs government faces caucus revolt over changes to LGBTQ school policy in N.B.

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, facing a revolt from eight members of his caucus over changes made to the province's policy on sexual orientation in schools, said Thursday he is willing to call an election on the issue.
Education Minister Bill Hogan unveils highly anticipated changes to Policy 713, which outlines minimum requirements for a safe environment for LGBTQ students in schools at a news conference in Fredericton, N.B. Thursday, June 8, 2023. Students under the age of 16 in New Brunswick schools will now require parental approval before changing their name or pronouns in schools. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hina Alam

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, facing a revolt from eight members of his caucus over changes made to the province's policy on sexual orientation in schools, said Thursday he is willing to call an election on the issue.

Higgs told reporters he stands by the changes made to the policy, which he said were "taking a strong position for families."

One major change is that students under 16 who identify as trans and nonbinary won't be able to officially change their names or pronouns in school without parental consent. The previous policy said teachers needed a student's informed consent before discussing the student's preferred name with a parent.

The eight Progressive Conservative dissidents, including six ministers in Higgs' 18-member cabinet, sat out question period and other legislative business Thursday in protest against the changes announced by Education Minister Bill Hogan. The changes come into effect July 1.

They said in a statement their absence was a way to express their "extreme disappointment in a lack of process and transparency" in the review of the three-year-old guidelines known as Policy 713. The members said they would not comment further, but some of them had called for Policy 713 to be left alone.

The eight dissenting members returned to the legislature Thursday afternoon and helped defeat a Green Party-sponsored bill banning shale gas development. 

Earlier in the day, Higgs maintained that the caucus and cabinet had "endless meetings" before arriving at Thursday's announcement, adding that the disagreement within his party "potentially could force an election." The Tories hold a majority with 29 of the legislature's 49 seats, and an election is not due until next year.

"That's a possibility," he said when asked if he was prepared to fight an election over the issue. "I believe that strongly in the case of finding a solution here where we do not exclude parents in their child's life."

Hogan defended the changes, which have stirred protests in the province since it was first revealed last month that the policy was under review.

"We believe that is fundamentally wrong to not share this information with the parents if we are using (a student's preferred name) on a daily basis," Hogan told reporters. "If we are using it on a daily basis, it puts teachers in a really challenging position."

The new policy is unclear about gender identity and participation in sports activities. "All students will be able to participate in curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular activities that are safe and welcoming," it reads. The previous version said that student participation could be "consistent with their gender identity."

When questioned at the news conference, Hogan said organizations governing sports were doing a "wonderful job" ensuring that all students can participate in the sport they identify with. "We don't intend to interfere with that," he said.

The new policy will also require universal washrooms to be private. Previously it said all students would have access "in a non-stigmatizing manner" to washroom facilities that align with their gender identity, and that all schools would have at least one universal washroom.

"There's a lot of bullying that occurs in our washrooms, any place where students are out of the sight of our professionals," Hogan said. "Then there's things that happen that we'd prefer not to happen."

Liberal Leader Susan Holt said her party would support a no-confidence motion against the government. The policy review, she said, rather than reassure the Liberals that the Tories were moving in the right direction, showed the government's inability to lead. 

"Whether this is time for an election or not is something that bears serious consideration, because it certainly seems like this government is unfit to lead," she said.

Green Leader David Coon said the review had "damaged the policy significantly."

He said the change requiring teachers to use the birth names and the genders assigned at birth of students under the age of 16 is "damaging the students, that is damaging the young people, and it's unacceptable."

He said the premier had lost the confidence of a "sizable part" of his cabinet. 

"He needs to go," Coon said of Higgs. "He needs to resign and he needs to do it now." 

Former Tory education minister Dominic Cardy, who sits as an Independent, disagreed that there was a need for an election. Cardy resigned last year, calling out Higgs' leadership and values. He said Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy should refuse to dissolve cabinet and instead ask whether anyone other than Higgs could become premier.

"I'm saying there are, very clearly, people who could do that job," Cardy said. "The premier has shown today he can't even command his own caucus, his own cabinet."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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