Canada’s right is ushering in a dangerous anti-science era

OPINION: Provincial and federal leaders like Pierre Poilievre and Danielle Smith are willing to spew misinformation, take away healthcare and ultimately put trans youth at risk—all to score political points

We’re only a week in, and already February has been a rough month for trans and non-binary people—especially youth—in Canada. Last Wednesday, Alberta premier Danielle Smith unveiled her government’s new “parental rights” policies, which, if fully implemented, would affect youth access to gender-affirming care, school pronoun policies and trans women’s participation in sports. The policies are the most restrictive in Canada so far. 

The tenets related to healthcare in particular separate Alberta’s proposal from other anti-trans policies that were boosted in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan in 2023—making the new guidelines further-reaching, and far more cruel. Smith said the Alberta government will ban gender-affirming hormones and puberty blockers for anyone 15 and under (youth ages 16-17 could access both only with parental consent). The policy will also ban top and bottom surgeries for anyone under 18.

The move prompted more than 40 groups—including the Alberta Medical Association (AMA), Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network—to issue statements condemning Smith’s policies, and brought forth a steady stream of debunkers from journalists and advocates who unpacked the many inaccuracies in Smith’s subsequent public statements. 

It also raised a lot of questions: Why are these policies coming now? How will they be enforced? Does Danielle Smith realize that minors are already unable to have bottom surgery in the very province she leads?

Just as the dust felt like it was starting to settle, federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre—who had previously remained tight-lipped about the issue of medical care for trans youth—escalated a step further. In a press conference yesterday, he told reporters that he personally believes people under the age of 18 should not be able to use puberty blockers. 

https://www.tiktok.com/@xtramagazine/video/7333342223926381830

It’s unclear who exactly Poilievre believes puberty blockers are for. As many—including my colleagues at Xtrahave pointed out, most people have gone through puberty by the age of 18. The whole point of puberty blockers is to, well, block puberty. They’re intended as a temporary stopgap while kids decide whether to start gender-affirming hormones. Giving blockers to someone who has been forced to complete the irreversible process of puberty will do little to no good. A ban on puberty blockers for anyone under the age of 18 would, to be clear, essentially be a ban on puberty blockers, period. 

This should worry everyone, not just trans youth, their families and their allies. Policies like those introduced in Alberta last week, and talking points like Poilievre’s, signal a concerning new anti-science chapter in Canadian politics—one where federal leaders are willing to spew misinformation, severely limit bodily autonomy, take away citizen’s healthcare and ultimately put youth at risk.  

 

While Poilievre was expressing a personal opinion, rather than proposing federal policies, his statements have understandably put trans youth and their parents on edge, especially in the wake of Alberta’s announcement. Many fear similar policies to Alberta’s will spread elsewhere, or that existing anti-trans policies will escalate. 

“Alberta just one-upped Saskatchewan—are they going to try to one-up Alberta in turn? Is this going to be governments fighting to see who can most aggressively restrict the freedom of kids and their families?” Fae Johnstone tells Xtra. Johnstone is executive director of Wisdon2Action and Momentum, two LGBTQ2S+ advocacy groups that have been working closely with families of trans youth in provinces where restrictive policies have been introduced.

Johnstone points out that while politicians are increasingly happy to roll back trans rights, their policies aren’t based on science, facts or even large-scale concern from voters. 

In a press conference this week, for example, Smith could not point to any instance of a youth receiving top surgery in Alberta without parental consent. She also admitted that her new policies  arose not out of evidence of an actual problem, but out of “concern of what will happen” to trans youth in the future. 

“If the premier had genuine concerns about the existing healthcare protocols and practices, a responsible government would have said, ‘We’re going to do a systemic review. We’re going to go and chat with a bunch of doctors,’” says Johnstone. “This is about government intervention, and putting their government between your family and the healthcare your kid needs.”  

This chapter isn’t unprecedented. Both Smith and Poilievre in particular previously showed a willingness to leverage misinformation and anti-science rhetoric, particularly around COVID-19 restrictions during the pandemic. 

But the stakes continue to grow, as anti-trans policies only serve to weaken an already crumbling healthcare system. Like in the rest of the country, emergency room wait times in Alberta have ballooned as some ERs hit more than 150 per cent capacity last year. Between 2020 and 2023, the number of family doctors accepting new patients via the province’s Find a Doctor portal decreased by 79 percent.

These numbers are only poised to get worse. The same week Smith’s new trans youth policies were announced, the AMA conducted a social media campaign to draw attention to the issues primary care physicians are facing in the province. According to a recent survey of AMA members, 61 percent of Alberta family physicians are considering leaving the province or retiring early.    

The federal picture is no less bleak. Early this year, Dr. Michael Howlett, president of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, told CityNews that Canadian ER wait times are, “the worst it’s ever been.” Last year, half of Canadians did not have a family doctor

Restrictive trans healthcare policies like Alberta’s are likely to exacerbate these problems, Johnstone says. “Doctors are already receiving threats and being targeted by far-right groups. If we force physicians out of healthcare or make it harder for them to do their jobs, that’s going to hurt everybody because that means longer wait times for you, your family, your kids.

“It’s important to frame this as a distraction,” she continues. “Instead of addressing issues like the opioid crisis or hospital wait times, the premier is using the red herring of trans kids to stir up fear.”

Rather than moving toward much-needed healthcare reform, Smith and Poilievre have chosen to funnel energy, attention and resources into picking on trans youth—dreaming up policies and expressing personal opinions that will bring outsize pain to a group who represent a small minority. 

And I mean very small. This week, National Post Alberta correspondent Tyler Dawson pressed the Alberta government to look more closely at their data regarding youth top surgeries, for example. According to Dawson, only eight gender-affirming top surgeries were conducted on patients under 18 in the province in 2022–2023. 

“Politicians feel it’s acceptable—even politically beneficial—to dictate our options for healthcare, and strip us of our rights to medical care in the process.”

And while these new policies won’t do anything to improve the province’s crumbling healthcare system, they will actively strip young Albertans of a safe, life-saving form of medical care that’s been endorsed by nearly every major medical association.  

Doctors in the province have already begun to voice their dissent, pointing out that restricting access to care will damage young people’s well-being, and signify a serious loss of healthcare freedom in the country. “For me, that sort of interference by a government is dangerous because it signals that the government can control your medical therapy or medical treatment,” Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a pediatrician in Edmonton recently told CTV News

Alberta’s policy sets a precedent that should worry anyone who values the rights that both youth and adults currently have in Canada to access healthcare or make medical decisions for ourselves. It sets the whole country up on a slippery slope upon which politicians feel it’s acceptable—or even politically beneficial—to dictate our options for healthcare, and strip us of our rights to medical care in the process.

The slipperiness of the slope became even clearer last week when more than 6,000 Albertans received a robocall survey that asked a single question: “Should parental rights include parental consent for a minor child seeking an abortion?” The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has since revealed that the polling firm likely responsible for the calls has ties to anti-abortion groups in the province. 

As Canada moves closer to a federal election, this type of politicking is likely to ramp up. Canadians, LGBTQ2S+ or otherwise, need to be ready to defend the healthcare rights of all citizens—adults and children alike. If we allow science to be dismissed, and misinformation to be accepted without question, then we risk living in a country where our medical freedoms are contingent on provincial or federal leaders’ whims—where anyone’s healthcare rights can be stripped in exchange for votes. 

Ziya Jones

Ziya Jones is the senior editor, health at Xtra.

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