Premier Danielle Smith swore for months that she didn’t want to politicize issues around the rights and aspirations of transgender, gender-fluid or questioning youth, and has now declared Canada’s most restrictive and wide-ranging set of policies governing the rights and aspirations of those same minors.
She didn’t want to politicize it, and yet there Smith was on Thursday, by herself at the news conference lectern. The health, education and sport ministers weren’t on hand to explain the various reforms, nor any civil servants or subject experts — only Alberta’s chief politician.
In the social-media video issued Wednesday that launched these dramatic moves, and again the next day, Smith said she wants those children to know “you are loved and supported as you work through your complex and often changing emotions, feelings and beliefs.”
However, the government policy will imply that those young people might be making a terrible mistake about who they want to be, and will not support, and in fact block, any minor from having gender-affirming surgery — in addition to imposing Canada’s first ban on hormone treatment and puberty-blocking medication for anyone under 16.
Pressed on that point, Smith tweaked her language about who she supports and when.
“I support the journey of adults who want to transition to another gender as far as they are adults and able to accept the consequences of those decisions,” the premier told reporters.
“I certainly do not want children to be making decisions before they’ve maybe even had sex about whether they want to stop that aspect of their life, or before they’ve even contemplated whether they want to have kids.”
(Gender-affirming surgery on lower body parts is already age-restricted by the Canadian Paediatric Society, making Smith’s promise to bar it in Alberta rather moot.)
Smith’s reforms stand to change substantially how Alberta trans youth explore their identity at school, pursue gender-affirming treatment, and participate in sports, though everything was only announced this week in broad strokes, details to come, and to take effect at various undetermined points later in 2024.
Some of that, perhaps, will be sorted out below the political level at which Smith states her United Conservative Party caucus approved these changes.
While Smith’s age restrictions break new ground in Canada, she follows Saskatchewan and New Brunswick with her plan to require parental consent when teens under 16 want to change their names or gender pronouns in classrooms, and went further by requiring parents be notified if their 16- or 17-year-olds do the same.
In the Maritime province, this triggered internal revolt in the governing Tories; in Saskatchewan, a court injunction prompted Premier Scott Moe to squelch it with the notwithstanding clause, the constitutional rights override. Did Smith believe that those provinces politicized the issue?
She was asked. She did not answer.
Smith noted her limits on teens seeking gender-affirming care follow international precedent in the United States and Europe.
However, she did not point out the key distinctions between those two regions: European reforms have been largely spearheaded at the academic and health agency level, including the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, while North America’s major medical associations have made no such proposals. Stateside, like in Canada, politicians have led the charge — Republican lawmakers engaged in ongoing social culture wars that have been known to trickle north of the border.
Last week, Smith shared a stage with commentator Tucker Carlson after he’d caustically referred to surgeries that “castrate” youth, and Jordan Peterson, who puts the word trans in scare-quote marks and calls gender-affirming treatment “medical crimes.” Meanwhile, David Parker of Take Back Alberta, the activist group bidding to influence Smith’s government policy, said this week her changes mean teachers “no longer have permission to indoctrinate our children into [their] ideology.”
While the trans policies put Smith on the hard edge of Canadian reforms, she certainly does not ape the rhetoric and terms of those commentators. Held up next to Carlson or Peterson, one could perceive her as moderate — the balance-striker that she proclaims herself to be on this front.
Until this point, even social conservatives had told this writer they didn’t believe that Smith, a self-proclaimed libertarian and social moderate, would tread too far on this topic. A decade ago, she pushed against the Wildrose Party she led on LGBTQ issues, and against the then-governing Tories. When she appeared on Peterson’s podcast last fall, she boasted to him that a senior Alberta Justice official is transgender.
As much as she spoke of somehow not politicizing trans issues, her political grassroots had demanded action on this front at her party’s political convention — and it was to that UCP base that she first pledged to do something on parental rights.
Questions will remain about who is or isn’t politicizing this. Is she? Are the critics, including the Alberta NDP and federal politicians, as well as teachers and doctors? What about the vocal supporters, with their rhetoric?
Politicians might be no better equipped to judge who is or isn’t politicizing something than, say, journalists are.
But it holds true that one political figure alone made these announcements and is taking responsibility for them. While the consequences for her will be political support (or opposition), there will be more concrete impacts for those doctors and teachers required to enact the reforms, and of course trans individuals themselves who must navigate a very changed Alberta for them.