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New Sask. policies raise concerns for STI transmission, trans youth safety


The head of a Saskatoon-based sexual health clinic worries Saskatchewan's new approach to sex education in schools and gender-diverse students could fuel a rise in STI transmission and increased risks for trans youth.

"Saskatchewan, as a province has the highest national levels of HIV, of hepatitis C, of teenage pregnancy, it has the second highest rates of sexualized violence, we also have some of the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the country," Saskatoon Sexual Health executive director Caitlin Cottrel told CTV News.

"And syphilis has absolutely exploded in Saskatchewan in the last five years."

On Tuesday, education minister Dustin Duncan announced Saskatchewan will require schools to share sexual health education materials with parents and caregivers. Under the new rules, parents and caregivers can opt their children out of sex-ed.

"This is an issue that we've heard from parents. They just want to know, they want to be involved in the education of their children," Duncan said during a news conference announcing the move.

The policy changes come after the newly-formed Saskatchewan United Party posted a strong performance in a recent byelection held in the constituency of Lumsden-Morse.

The upstart party's campaign leaned into the controversy sparked by a Planned Parenthood sexual health resource provided to Grade 9 students in the town of Lumsden.

"I think there was a very knee-jerk reaction to this instance and I think a lot of misunderstanding of how the situation actually unfolded," Cottrel said.

"Rather than having sort of a fearful or a negative reaction and moving so far away from comprehensive discussions, I think it could have been used as an opportunity to have some deeper and more involved conversations about sexual health."

According to Cottrel, Saskatchewan's sex-ed curriculum hasn't been updated in more than a decade.

"I don't want to minimize the impact that these things have, but any adolescent with access to the internet also has access to the information that was brought forward from this situation. But if they're accessing it on the internet, they're doing it without being able to ask questions," she said.

"When we're talking about comprehensive sexual education, we're talking about knowing physiology, your own physiology, recognizing sexual health issues. We're talking about consent, relationship boundaries, we're talking about providing us with tools that are used in sexual situations, but not just that, we're talking about creating tools and knowledge around safe boundaries and relationships."

On Tuesday, the education minister also announced a new requirement for parental consent for students under 16 years old who wish to use a different gender pronoun or name at school — mirroring a controversial policy shift in New Brunswick.

"We wanted to put in place a consistent policy across the province as school divisions have slowly been looking at these types of policies to say that we want parents to be involved, — parents want to be involved — more involvement, not less involvement," Duncan said during his announcement.

"This is a huge concern for us and for other organizations like ours in the province," Cottrel said.

"We know in this field is that the protections that are provided to trans youth in school are often life-saving, and it is often the only safe place that queer and trans youth have."

She said that trans youth "experiencing negativity (such as) verbal, emotional and physical abuse at home as a response to their identity" are at greater risk of suicide, substance abuse and mental health issues as well as homelessness.

"We share a building with OUTSaskatoon, which provides a lot of support services to trans and queer youth," Cottrel said.

"We see youth every day who do not have a safe space to be themselves at home, youth who are not even allowed to be in their homes anymore, because of their sexual identity and their gender identity."

She said there are "a number of kids in care" because they have been removed from their homes or forced to leave because of their gender identity.

"I think that people feel that their neighbours, community and parents around them wouldn't be having these reactions to their children. But that's not the truth," Cottrel said.

"There are many youth still in 2023, who are facing enormous pushback, enormous violence from their families, whether that be physical or emotional. So that is definitely still a huge concern and a daily reality for many queer and trans youth."

On Wednesday, the Saskatchewan Advocate for Children and Youth Lisa Broda said she is launching an immediate review of the province's new school pronoun policy.

In a news release, Broda called the potential impact of the police "deeply troubling." Top Stories

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