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Cross-country rallies against 'gender ideology' in schools meet with counter-protests

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Thousands of people gathered in cities across Canada on Wednesday for competing protests, yelling and chanting at each other about the way schools instruct sexuality and gender identity and how teachers refer to transgender youth.

Protesters accused schools of exposing young students to "gender ideology," and said parents have the right to know whether their children are questioning their gender identity. Counter-demonstrators, meanwhile, accused protesters of importing United States culture wars into the country and trying to deny students important lessons about inclusion and respect for gender-diverse people.

"Trans people -- they exist in society, and they deserve inclusion, just like everyone else," said activist Celeste Trianon, who helped lead a counter-protest in downtown Montreal, where police inserted themselves between the two factions outside the offices of Premier Francois Legault.

"We need to talk to people, teach them the right vocabulary, the proper words, at an age-appropriate time, in order to explain that inclusion is a good thing. We need to make sure that their trans and queer peers at school feel welcome."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted about the Canada-wide protests, saying "Transphobia, homophobia, and biphobia have no place in this country. We strongly condemn this hate and its manifestations, and we stand united in support of 2SLGBTQI+ Canadians across the country -- you are valid and you are valued."

Organizers of the marches said they were protesting the "premature sexualization and potentially harmful indoctrination" of children, but that they aren't against LGBTQ2S+ people. The crowd that gathered in Ottawa suggested otherwise, with some signs held by protesters directly targeting members in that community as being groomers and pedophiles.

Others shouted that being LGBTQ2S+ is a sin, that children shouldn't be learning about those identities in schools, and that the "evilness" of the LGBTQ2S+ community will soon be eradicated.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh led a group of counter-protesters down Wellington Street. A heavy police presence separated protesters from counter-demonstrators, with competing chants about protecting trans youth and keeping gender ideologies out of schools.

"We know that there are a lot of folks that don't feel safe because of the rise in hate and division that's targeting vulnerable people," Singh said. "But then you see a lot of people coming together, and it shows the strength of solidarity, of us supporting each other, of having each other's back."

Hours later, Ottawa police said they arrested two people for inciting hatred at the protest "by displaying hateful material," and arrested another person for causing a disturbance. "Hate or bias-motivated crimes will be fully investigated," police said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Several observers at the trial of "Freedom Convoy" organizers Tamara Lich and Chris Barber in Ottawa confirmed they were at the protest earlier Wednesday. There were also protesters outside the courthouse.

Hundreds of people gathered for both a protest and a counter-protest in downtown Vancouver.

Counter-protester Tomi-Rose Clarke said the ideas being espoused by the other side are "scary" and "dangerous to kids, and people with trans kids, and adult trans people."

Clarke, who identifies as queer and transgender, said seeing so many people show up and push back against hate, makes them feel "empowered."

"It's nice to see such a big turnout. It brings a little bit of hope to an otherwise very scary moment in history," said Clarke, who uses the pronouns they, them.

By Wednesday afternoon, the protests on the lawn of the legislature in Victoria had become so large that police said the area had become unsafe and citizens should leave.

In a statement, the Victoria Police Department said there were approximately 2,500 people in attendance and tensions had escalated.

"Two arrests have been made and the organizers of the planned demonstration have left the area," the statement says.

Halifax police said demonstrations in that city led to the arrest of a 16-year-old who is scheduled to appear in youth court on charges of assault with a weapon, mischief and causing a disturbance.

It was New Brunswick's government that helped spark a debate across Canada about the way schools engage with transgender and nonbinary students. In June, the government changed the province's LGBTQ2S+ policy, requiring students under 16 to get parental consent before their teachers can use their preferred first names. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has filed a lawsuit against the province over the policy.

Premier Blaine Higgs attended the protest Wednesday outside the legislature in Fredericton, telling reporters that he has a hard time understanding why his government's policy is controversial.

"I think our parents should become knowledgeable about what their kids are being taught and what is important for them to learn in schools and what's important for parents to make decisions on with kids that are under 16 years old," he said.

New Brunswick's policy was copied by the Saskatchewan government, which has also prohibited teachers from referring to students under 16 by their preferred first names and pronouns without parental consent.

In Regina, hundreds of people gathered outside Saskatchewan's legislative building for the march. Some protesters held signs opposed to SOGI 123, an educational resource that teachers in some provinces can use to create more inclusive classrooms.

Jashandeep Dhillon said she doesn't want her children to be exposed to gender issues.

"I don't want them to be educated on whether they are a girl or a boy," she said. "Let them be what they want to be. If he decides in his life, when he's an adult, if he wants to change, I'm OK with that."

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe urged protesters on both sides to remain peaceful and respectful.

The province's children's advocate has said the policy violates children's rights and a Saskatchewan judge heard arguments over an injunction application to pause it.

The judge has reserved his decision.

Moe stood by the policy Monday and reiterated that his government will do everything in its power to protect parental rights.

The premier has said he would consider using the notwithstanding clause, a provision that allows governments to override certain Charter rights for up to five years.

In Toronto, a large group of counter-protesters walked toward the legislature at Queen's Park, where anti-LGBTQ2S+ protesters had gathered.

Protesters held up signs supporting the People's Party of Canada and shouted slogans such as "leave our kids alone." Some protesters held up signs promoting various conspiracy theories and criticizing Trudeau.

Adrienne Kulling, a counter-protester, said she had the day off work and came out to be an ally to the LGBTQ2S+ community.

She said Canada has started "mimicking" the culture wars in the United States, including on gender identity.

"I really think we were moving in a progressive direction, and then all of a sudden things started shifting," Kulling said.

"We need to show support for the trans and nonbinary kids. They need help because there's suicide, depression -- all these things are coming up with queer youth."

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.

By Hina Alam in Fredericton, Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal, Alessia Passafiume and Laura Osman in Ottawa, William Eltherington in Toronto, Ashley Joannou in Vancouver, Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon and Jeremy Simes in Regina.

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