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Protesters face off in Saskatoon over school pronoun policy

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Hundreds of people descended on downtown Saskatoon Wednesday as duelling protests squared off over a policy recently introduced by the Saskatchewan government.

In August, the province's education minister announced new rules requiring students under 16 years old to seek parental consent before changing their pronouns or preferred first names in a school setting. Also, parents can now opt their kids out of sexual health presentations.

Debates over gender pronouns in schools have emerged in other parts of Canada, with New Brunswick introducing a controversial policy earlier this year and Ontario premier Doug Ford recently weighing in on the issue.

Saskatoon's "1 Million March 4 Children" was one of multiple rallies held under the same banner across Canada, with hundreds gathering at the Meewasin Skating Rink site in Kiwanis Park.

On their website, national organizers said the protest is advocating for the "elimination of the sexual orientation and gender identity curriculum, pronouns, gender ideology and mixed bathrooms in schools."

A recent "medical professional roundtable" posted on the website includeds two doctors who faced professional repercussions due to their views on COVID-19 vaccination, a biologist who researches salmon and a moderator who references a debunked claim that the United Nations is working to normalize pedophilia.

Children wait for balloon animals during Saskatoon's 1 Million March 4 Children rally. (Josh Lynn/CTV News)

Tamer Mansor said he attended the Saskatoon rally out of concern that children could be "brainwashed somehow to think under a specific ideology."

"There is no way I can know how every single teacher is thinking. I trust them because they have a degree in education. But they don't have a degree in ideology. They don't have a degree in sex conversion. You don't have a degree in transgender. This is not something expected to be taught by teachers," Mansor said.

Hundreds of people can be seen at the 1 Million March 4 Children event in Saskatoon (Josh Lynn/CTV News).

'Do you think if I start daily, talking in a good way about Islam in front of the kids, do you think this is going to affect how those kids are looking at that specific religion? I'm [using] the example of Islam because it's my own religion. But now, we have reached an agreement that even this shouldn't be allowed. Religions shouldn't be taught at schools. Why? Because it's an ideology," Mansor said.

At one point several children took turns speaking into a microphone at the event, one saying they didn't want their "brain invaded" and another saying she didn't "want to be a boy."

There was a visible police presence at both Saskatoon events. (Josh Lynn/CTV News)

Many were at the rally to simply show support for the province's new policy, which is currently subject to a legal challenge. It has also come under fire from Saskatchewan's youth advocate.

"Parents have to be in charge of their children, not the schools," Lucy Lowes said.

A short distance away in Kiwanis Park, hundreds of counter-protesters gathered around the Vimy Memorial bandstand, many waving rainbow flags.

A small group of 1 Million March 4 Children-affiliated protesters used a PA system to adress the crowd at the counter-protest, talking over loud chants of "no space for hate."

Many 1 Million March 4 Children protesters had signs claiming schools are "grooming" children. (Josh Lynn/CTV News)

One of the speakers claimed the acceptance of diverse gender identities is part of a scheme of "population control" and went on to reference ideas held by adherents of the "Great Reset" and related conspiracy theories.

There was a visible police presence at both rallies, with officers at one point converging on the bandstand after activist Mark Friesen took a microphone from a counter-protester.

Friesen was a prominent voice in Saskatchewan at the height of the pandemic, criticizing COVID-19-related public health measures, including vaccinations, and organizing "freedom" rallies

Friesen explained the microphone was his equipment and had a brief conversation with the police. Moments later the PA speaker was knocked over. However, the situation didn't escalate further.

Supporters of the 1 Million March 4 Children walked through downtown. (Josh Lynn/CTV News)

One participant at the counter-protest who spoke with CTV News said he felt confused about the aims of 1 Million March 4 Children supporters.

"I'm not actually sure exactly what they're protesting," he said.

"They want to eliminate indoctrination in the schools but it doesn't exist. No one is teaching their kids to be trans or gay. Teachers have a hard time already just teaching the subjects that they are teaching. You try and get 30 kids to do something."

Another counter-protester said she was there to show support for her brother.

"If this policy came out when he was in school. I'm not sure if my parents would have been [ready] to talk about that yet on their terms and yet they've come a long way. He just got his top surgery this year."

Counter-protesters followed behind 1 Million March 4 Children protesters as they walked through downtown Saskatoon. (Josh Lynn/CTV News)

The flow between the competing events went both ways, with counter-protesters at one point occupying a small stage intended for speakers at the 1 Million March 4 Children rally.

Later in the morning, both groups marched through downtown Saskatoon while police blocked streets and provided an escort. The route snaked past Saskatoon's public and Catholic school division offices.

According to Saskatoon Police Service, Wednesday's protests "remained entirely peaceful."

Police estimate around 1,000 people took part in the two events.

When asked about the protests during an unrelated news conference in Saskatoon, Premier Scott Moe said he hoped both sides would make their points "peacefully and respectfully."

Moe has signalled the pronoun policy could soon become law and that he may turn to the federal notwithstanding clause to prevent potential Charter challenges.

The new policy was introduced following a strong byelection showing by the upstart Saskatchewan United Party in the constituency of Lumsden-Morse, a stronghold for Moe's ruling Saskatchewan Party.

Sask. United campaigned on the controversy sparked by a Planned Parenthood sexual health resource that was provided to Grade 9 students in the town of Lumsden.

There were also 1 Million March 4 Children events held in Regina, Prince Albert and Yorkton.

-- With files from Noah Rishaug, John Flatters and Rory MacLean

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