Last June, late one night after my kids had gone to bed, I stumbled across a Twitter Space for parents concerned about what their children are being taught at school. There were 60 or so participants, mostly from Ontario: Canadians from a diverse range of backgrounds who weren’t happy about kids being told that maths is racist or having access to graphic books such as Gender Queer. Many of the parents in the Space had been shut down or shamed for asking questions about lessons. Some had been labelled bigots or transphobes. That evening, the discussion was about a recent parents’ rights protest in Ottawa, which was being depicted in the news as a movement of hateful, conservative Muslims who were anti-trans and didn’t want their kids learning about LGBT issues in school.

Under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, Canadian policy has hewn quite close to the transactivist’s ideal: gender identity has become a protected characteristic under the Canadian Human Rights Act, and gender reassignment surgery is now often covered by the country’s universal healthcare system. Meanwhile, school boards and teachers’ unions have been quick to adopt some of the most extreme tenets of gender ideology — for instance, not telling parents when their children start to socially transition. 

Now, parents are pushing back. Last month, parents marched in almost 100 cities under the banner of #1MillionMarch4Children calling for the removal of material from school curriculums that sexualises children. Trudeau had claimed the protests were being “fuelled by the American right-wing”, but the alliance includes all political stances — from Liberty Coalition Canada, a Christian conservative advocacy group, to Blueprint for Canada, a non-partisan platform advocating “classical liberal” values. Some are issue-based, such as Our Duty Canada, a support network for families struggling with the impact of gender ideology. Plenty are grassroots, springing up in villages and towns in response to specific local events.

The protests, though they have been criticised for being anti-LGBT, are actually about protecting minors from harmful content in schools. At the protest I attended — in Durham, just outside Toronto — there were marchers of all races and religions. And their motives varied. Two young moms with children going to kindergarten soon held up placards that read “Education, not indoctrination” and “Stop sexualizing our kids”. A young girl sat next to a poster that read, “No boys in my bathroom!” A father of five children under the age of 15 was there with his wife and kids to protest against Ontario’s sex education curriculum, which he felt introduces material on sexual orientation and gender identity to children too young to understand the concepts. And three Pakistani brothers — one in high school and the other two in university — gave an interview to a local media outlet about why they felt they should not be required to partake in pride activities that went against their beliefs as Muslims.

Conservative Muslims have been overrepresented at recent protests, with a noticeable number of women in hijabs or niqabs. And as a result the movement as a whole has received accusations of being motivated by Muslim extremism. Protests against gender ideology in schools took place over the summer in Ottawa and Calgary, organised by local Muslim parents groups, with reports of young Arab boys stomping on rainbow pride flags while others cheered them on. There was a flurry of progressives questioning Muslim values and attitudes that clash with their beliefs in multicultural Canada. Several hundred people were present at the march I attended, and I’d estimate that 60-70% of them were Muslims.

It would not be fair to assume that all these Muslims were marching in opposition to same-sex relationships as well as in support of parents’ rights; but the Canadian Muslim community is known to have more negative views of LGBT rights than the general population. One transgender protestor I spoke to was in Durham because the chapter in her own town — led by conservative Muslims — was advocating not only for parental rights, which she supports, but also for the eradication of all gay and transgender people. So, the accusation that the movement has an anti-LGBT strain is not entirely unfounded.

There was also a conspiratorial minority at the protests. Anti-vaxxers complained about “shot deaths”, and told tales of what “really” happened during the pandemic. One former nurse who lost her job because she wouldn’t get vaccinated, believed that people were getting sick because of radiation poisoning from 5G towers. The trucker Freedom Convey was also present, waving “Fuck Trudeau” flags; one vehicle was covered in news stories about people who died after getting the Covid vaccines. These conspiracists were not representative; most people really were there to protest against the school boards and advocate for reform of the education system. Indeed, some parents were surprised to see people discussing vaccines and lockdowns. One mom told me: “It’s a free country, they can come here and protest too if they like.” But these fringe elements could be undermining a movement that should, in theory, have mainstream support.

The presence of more extreme groups has doubtless contributed to the Conservative Party of Canada keeping its distance from the march. The more Right-wing, less popular People’s Party of Canada did participate — which would have given the Conservatives another reason not to engage. Pierre Poilievre, leader of the Conservative Party, sent a memo out to his caucus before the march warning them not to speak publicly about the issue — even though, at the recent convention in Quebec City, delegates voted in favour of a future Conservative government prohibiting “life-altering” medical and surgical interventions for gender-diverse and transgender people under the age of 18.

Poilievre is trying to strike a delicate balance here: he has indicated to his base that he’s on the same page as them about parents’ rights and gender ideology, but he doesn’t want his party to be associated with unsavoury characters. It might threaten his current lead over Trudeau in the polls. Poilievre tweeted in support of parents’ rights without explicitly mentioning the protests, which have continued across cities in Canada. Trudeau meanwhile came out firmly in opposition to the march, claiming it was promoting hate against “2SLGBTQI+ Canadians across the country”. It seems that for now, parents are going to have to fight it out with local governments, teachers’ unions and school boards, without the explicit backing of a national party.

The march, for all its issues and contradictions, has managed to unite a huge range of Canadians to come together in support of a common cause: a right to have a say in their children’s education. Most of the participants are trying to stay laser-focused on this cause, putting aside their differences to help pass legislation that will protect kids from being exposed to what they see as inappropriate content — and, in some places, from irreversible surgeries. Public opinion is on their side, but it remains to be seen whether party politics will catch up.

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