Grade 11 student Audrey Provan’s school isn’t trying to make anyone queer. Her teachers aren’t turning people trans. And her gender and sexuality alliance isn’t coercing students to become gay, lesbian or bisexual.
But F.H. Collins Secondary School does have a supervised place for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two-spirit, allies and more to go to get support, explore their identity and escape bullying, harassment and discrimination.
“Not everyone gets to go home to families who are accepting and safe. Not everyone gets to go home to families who know that they’re queer,” Provan said. “They come to school and that might be the only place where they get to be themselves or use their preferred pronouns or go by a preferred name.”
Released in 2021, the Yukon government’s LGBTQ2S+ inclusion action plan outlines some initiatives intended to end discrimination and make government programs and services, including schools, more inclusive. As part of the plan, the Yukon government had been encouraging schools to support gender and sexuality alliances or similar clubs.
That encouragement became a requirement after the Yukon NDP-led Bill 304 passed in the Yukon Legislative Assembly and received assent in April 2022.
The relatively new law requires all territorial schools to have safe spaces in the form of activities and organizations dedicated to LGBTQ2S+ students. It mandates that schools designate a staff member or responsible adult to take the lead on initiatives in the school that promote equality and non-discrimination.
Every school in the territory has a designated space and a lead who is a safe contact for the LGBTQ2S+ community and allies, according to an Education department official.
For example, Porter Creek Secondary School’s gender and sexuality alliance offers the Rainbow Room as the school’s safe space. On the website, it is described as a social and educational space for all students.
The school counsellor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Secondary School helps run a gender and sexuality alliance. Colleen Segriff said the school previously used rainbow lion stickers to designate safe spaces and staff. For the past years, it has had a club that meets once a week at lunch.
“Everyone’s included. Everyone’s welcome,” Segriff said. “We try to get as many people, whether members of the queer community or allies, to be involved.”
The passing of the legislation by MLAs supported the work that was already happening at the school.
“It felt really good to have that support,” Segriff said.
Right now, Segriff said the students are focused on crocheting led by one of the students. The club facilitates informational bulletin boards about sexual orientation and gender identity, takes field trips to Queer Yukon and the Rainbow Room and holds social events with guest speakers. If students have class, then they need their teacher’s permission to use the space, which is only available when monitored.
“I think that it is important to show students that we see them and that they matter, acknowledge them for who they are and give them the safety to express that,” Segriff said.
Statistics Canada data suggests Canada is home to an estimated one million people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or of another sexual orientation than heterosexual, which represents four per cent of the country’s population aged 15 and up. That includes 52 per cent who are women, 44 per cent who are men and three per cent who are non-binary.
A report prepared for the Yukon’s Education department was provided to the News upon request. It presents data related to sexual orientation and gender identity, among other things, collected from just over 1,100 high school students in Grades 8 to 12 in 12 schools that participated in a survey between March 28 and April 14.
In response to a question in the school survey about how students would describe their sexual orientation or preference, 70 per cent are straight, two per cent are lesbian, three per cent are gay, nine per cent are bisexual, one per cent is two-spirit, three per cent are queer, five per cent identify in another way and eight per cent are unsure or questioning.
When asked whether they consider themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or two-spirit, 21 per cent of students consider themselves to be LGBTQ2S+. Seventy-one per cent of students are not LGBTQ2S+ and nine per cent of students chose not to respond, according to the school survey.
Slightly more than half of students consider themselves to be an ally of the LGBTQ2S+ community, more than one-third don’t consider themselves to be allies and 15 per cent preferred not to respond, per the school survey.
Karen Campbell is the director of inclusive policy and practice for the Education department.
“I think what that data says to us is that we are definitely moving in the right direction with having a policy that supports all sexual orientation and gender identity because everyone does have a sexual orientation and gender identity,” Campbell said.
Campbell said the policy focuses on welcoming LGBTQ2S+ students and keeping their safety and well-being at the forefront.
As for those who claim they aren’t allies, Campbell said they can hold those beliefs as long as schools remain safe for all.
“The Department of Education celebrates our students and their diversity,” Campbell said. “We welcome a school environment and a world that doesn’t discriminate or is unsafe for anyone. So, I feel as though that data shows that we should continue with our inclusive practices in schools.”
The rolling out of the policy in practice differs by school and age and grade level.
“Every school will have some sort of activities planned around diversity. Some of it might be in the way of gender and sexuality alliances,” Campbell said. “Elementary schools tend not to designate gender and sexuality alliances, but they’ll have other clubs that promote diversity and inclusivity for all students.”
One misunderstanding that Campbell has been fielding relates to how sexual orientation and gender identity, widely known as SOGI, actually plays out in schools.
“SOGI isn’t curriculum. We have a curriculum, which is the physical education and health curriculum, in which we have an obligation to teach students, you know, about diversity [and] about boundaries,” Campbell said.
For example, students in kindergarten are taught the proper words for body parts and high school students learn about responsible sexual partners.
“The misconception is that we teach students to be lesbians or to be bi, and that’s not the case. What we teach is about stereotypes and we teach about what it means to be inclusive and aware of diversity,” Campbell said, noting it’s a myth that the education system is teaching students to orient or identify in a certain way.
“People are, maybe in the Yukon, feeling much more comfortable to share out their sexual orientation and gender identity due to the inclusive nature of this territory.”
Kate Clark is a teacher at F.H. Collins Secondary School. She is one of the leads of the school’s gender and sexuality alliance. She said having open discussions about what’s happening in classrooms and school clubs is key to addressing push back and supporting youth who experience higher risks of depression, bullying and suicide due to their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Clark indicated that sometimes people within the school have the knowledge, time and capacity to have those one-on-one chats.
“I think that that’s kind of how like change slowly happens is through those kind of honest conversations,” she said.
“Because I would rather people learn more and are sharing knowledge and understanding what this is actually about and how important it is than feeling scared and confused and getting mad and then having something like this taken away or shut down.”
Education critic Scott Kent of the Yukon Party recently came under fire for floating questions in the Yukon Legislative Assembly. In response to Education Minister Jeanie McLean’s ministerial statement on sexual orientation and gender identity policy in schools, Kent asked about a parent, caregiver or guardians’ role in their child’s pronoun choice.
The Saskatchewan government recently passed a policy using the rarely used notwithstanding clause that requires parental consent for school authorities to use preferred names and pronouns for students under 16 years old.
The Yukon’s minister wasn’t clear about the territory’s policy in her response to the Yukon Party’s questions, although the territorial Education department later clarified its interpretation of the Yukon’s policy by email.
The email opens by laying out the Yukon government’s policy:
“Administrators, staff and students will recognize people’s correct pronouns, as declared by the individuals themselves. This requirement applies to students who have not made official changes to their name or gender in school records.”
The email notes the policy doesn’t speak to whether school staff must tell parents that a child wishes to use different pronouns or a different name.
Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon told reporters in the lobby of the Yukon legislative building that the interpretation makes for reasonable policy that he wishes McLean would have laid out on the floor of the legislature.
As a student, Provan said imposing a similar policy requiring parental consent like in Saskatchewan would have a bad impact here.
“I think that it would be super harmful,” she said. “If school isn’t a safe space anymore, and home isn’t a safe space, then where is their safe space?”
Contact Dana Hatherly at email@example.com