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'Misinformation' about alleged change room incident at Saskatoon pool leads to emotional city hall debate


Emotions ran high during a routine Saskatoon city council committee meeting Wednesday morning as a small group of residents tried to take the city to task over an unsubstantiated social media claim regarding a swimming pool change room and dozens of others came to the defence of the city's trans community.

A handful of people originally requested to speak or submitted comments, inspired by an unsourced story circulated on social media regarding claims concerning a trans woman's presence in a Shaw Centre change room.

Among them was podcaster Mark Friesen, who has run federally twice for the People's Party of Canada, provincially for the Buffalo Party and has been a prominent local campaigner against COVID-19 public health measures, including vaccination.

According to the City of Saskatoon, the alleged Jan. 27 change-room incident has been grossly mischaracterized.

"The city’s understanding of what occurred is substantively different than what has been reported on social media and we have no reason to believe any inappropriate behaviour occurred," the city said in an email sent in response to an inquiry concerning the claim.

As the unverified story circulated on social media, Friesen encouraged people to protest outside the city-run leisure centre, claiming children are "at risk of predators" due to the city's inclusive policies which are in keeping with federal and provincial human rights legislation.

Policies which the city says are not uncommon in other jurisdictions both in Saskatchewan and across Canada.

With Friesen set to talk, the list of speakers scheduled for the committee meeting quickly ballooned over the past week as more than a dozen residents asked to counter the claims advanced by Friesen and his supporters.

Many of those who spoke on Wednesday drew links to a wider movement of hate directed toward trans people.

"The ones organizing a public response have a vested interest in promoting these incidents," Jared Young said.

"When reports of these incidents surface they always follow a similar pattern using terminology consistently [utilized by] anti-trans groups … this erupts into an outcry on how these policies are 'enabling predators,'" said Young, who referenced similar incidents in the U.S.

While addressing the committee, Zena Downer said she had come across "numerous" online forums where adults discuss what they would "like to do if they had the opportunity to prey upon a 2SLGBTQIA+ youth in a public space."

"They discuss harming them, hurting them until their bodies are unrecognizable and they discuss killing them and erasing them from the community. If these protests are not hateful and are purely about protecting hypothetical children, why is it that in all of the comments … people are sharing horrifying fantasies about harming a person who simply wishes to use a public facility in peace," Downer said.

It was Friesen who was the first to speak at the meeting, wearing a ballcap emblazoned with the logo of his "Grizzly Patriot" podcast.

"Now, I think it's important to make very clear that this is not directed at the trans movement," Friesen said in the packed council chamber.

"This concern is in regards to predators that are taking advantage of the policy to gain access to our women and children," Friesen argued.

A point that was refuted by several other speakers during Monday's meeting.

"Given that trans people are demonized by certain social and political movements as 'predators,' I would like to provide a point before I close out my remarks, trans people in our community are kind … trans people are strong — we don't want to be — but we are. We face violence and abuse every time we step outside or even use the internet, but still hold our heads up and we still fight," Brielle Bright told the committee.

Ward 4 Coun. Troy Davies had to repeatedly remind those attending the standing-room-only meeting to refrain from applauding or cheering, including in the moments after 10-year-old Zipp Neufeld spoke.

"At what point do I go from being someone you protect to someone who is a threat? Not based on my heart or any of my actions, but just based on my genitalia, and your ignorant ideas of what you think who I am," said Neufeld, who identifies as non-binary.

"I deserve to age without fear that the bathroom and change space that allows me to feel safe and at peace will be taken from me," Neufeld said.

"When trans adults thrive, trans kids survive."

When the public remarks were complete, several councillors took the opportunity to express their support for Saskatoon's trans community.

"This rhetoric puts trans people at risk. Let me say clearly, trans identities are valid. Trans women are women. Trans bodies are not a problem to be solved," Ward 2. Coun. Hilary Gough said while leading off the remarks.

"I do see a number of problems to be addressed in this discussion, namely, fear, misinformation, othering and transphobia," Gough said.

When it was her turn to speak, Ward 7 Coun. Marin Loewen referenced comments made by Lorraine Fajt, the only other speaker at the meeting who was critical of the city's current approach. Fajt spoke favourably of a recent wave of anti-transgender legislation in the U.S.

"I think it's especially important for us to have this conversation in the context of the intentional erosion of trans rights that's happening in other parts of the world, namely the United States," Loewen said.

"And we actually heard from a speaker today who expressed an explicit desire to mimic that erosion of trans rights and those legal protections and the safety for trans community members that we are observing in other parts of the world," Loewen said.

Loewen also emphasized that while council policy allows for residents to speak on a variety of issues, the city's current approach to inclusiveness was in no way up for debate.

"We will accept all of the correspondence and commentary that we've heard today as part of our record, but no further action will be taken," Loewen said.

"And I think it's important to clarify that because of this debate and the rhetoric that sort of at its core is very harmful and dangerous for members of the trans community," Loewen said.

Mayor Charlie Clark also expressed concern about the creep of hot-button American-style politics into local discussions.

"We cannot make any policies based on misinformation or based on what we're seeing across North America, preying on fears and trying to blow that up into something," Clark said.

"Right now we need to focus on understanding the reality of the world that people are experiencing, learn from one another and understand what it can take to build a city where everyone can thrive."

After an occasionally fraught, nearly hour-and-a-half-long start to its regular planning, development and community services meeting, council voted to receive the information provided by the speakers and adjourned for a short break before continuing. Top Stories

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