StatsCan bullying figures ring true for those who work with LGBTQ2S+ youth

A new report confirms there’s still a long way to go when it comes to ending bullying against queer and trans kids in Canada

In mid-October, Statistics Canada released a survey on bullying victimization rates among sexually and gender-diverse youth in Canada, basing the data on the 2019 Canadian Health Survey of Children and Youth. According to the research, 77 percent of sexually and gender-diverse youth aged 15 to 17 had been the target of bullying over the previous year, compared to cisgender and heterosexual youth, who reported a bullying rate of 69 percent.

The same survey found that queer and trans youth are also more likely to describe their mental health as poor, at a rate of 33 percent, as compared to other bullied youth (16 percent) and non-bullied queer and trans youth (also 16 percent). The rate of self-declared poor mental health was lowest among cisgender heterosexual youth at six percent.

The report was sponsored by Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE), which houses the federal 2SLGBTQI+ Secretariat.

“For far too many folks in the community, bullying is a lived reality and now we have data that shows that,” says Johise Namwira, spokesperson for Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth Marci Ien, by email. “That’s why from the outset we invested in programs and supports through WAGE and other departments across government, and there’s more to come with the implementation of the evergreen 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan.

“Our government understands that mental health is health—especially when it comes to youth,” Namwira says. “We will continue to support the work of 2SLGBTQI+ organizations and community leaders who are working on the front lines to provide life-saving programs, educational services and ultimately be there for those who need them most.”

Lyra Evans, school trustee with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the first out trans school trustee in the country, agrees that the numbers fit with data that her school board has been collecting.

“I have seen statistics showing that half of trans-identified youth have considered suicide, and approximately a third have attempted it,” Evans says. “I have seen statistics local to Ottawa that say that 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ2S+, so these numbers don’t surprise me because the intersections are very evident—if you have someone who is homeless because of troubles at home, they are more likely to be struggling with addiction, they are more likely to be struggling with mental health issues.”

For Neil Slattery, a youth counsellor at Ottawa’s Youth Service Bureau (YSB), the numbers in the survey ring true to what he sees on the ground in the community. 

“We are having experiences of youth who are talking about this disconnect in some ways,” says Slattery. “They show up at school and they’ve got their rainbow flag stickers, and they have a rainbow group or a Gay-Straight Alliance—all of those things are present, which on the surface is a sign of safety for youth, however, we’re having experiences where kids are being name-called or slurred.”

 

Slattery says that because of policy changes, that in all four of Ottawa’s school boards, they hear that teachers are fairly consistently using preferred names and pronouns with or without parental involvement.

“But then there are the kids in the class, and sometimes it’s a numbers game,” Slattery says. “Sometimes youth are saying, ‘I am the only one that’s in my classroom.’ It still happens—that’s the broader culture.”

Slattery says that YSB has youth coming in who experience trauma-like symptoms because of their experiences in school.

“Having a trauma-informed approach working with clients who are LGBTQ2S+ is really important because that may be an aspect of what is precipitating and maybe even maintaining mental health issues such as anxiety, which could turn into self-harming,” Slattery says. “When you have Indigenous and BIPOC youth as well, you’re adding in other experiences of oppression and discrimination, and all of these things are cues of danger.”

Slattery describes a recent video he watched on the effects of bullying on the brain, which had similar effects to other kinds of interpersonal violence.

“For trauma, we think of war, or people who have witnessed extreme events, but when you’re a teenager whose experience has been filled with all kinds of cues of danger and not being safe, it goes right to the core of who you are,” Slattery says. “As one kid said, ‘I’ve never had a trans teacher, EA, peer-supporter—I’m it.’”

Slattery says that this points to the need to have role models for LGBTQ2S+ youth, so that they can picture themselves past the age of 25.

Evans says that identity-based data collected by Ottawa-Carleton District School Board showed that trans students, in particular, had lower rates of success by their metrics, such as graduation rates and credit accumulation.

“We allocated resources to assisting that specific population, so we now hire a trans graduation coach, which is someone whose job it is to connect with struggling trans high school students who are either not accumulating credits the way they need to be, or who are struggling for other reasons, and ensure that they have a positive role model in their life, who can support their success in school,” Evans says.

Evans notes that this is a discretionary position that the district created because they felt it was important, and that this is attracting interest from other school trustees around the province. With media attention has come more conversations with trustees around the country, including Teri Westerby in B.C., recently elected as the first openly trans man school trustee in the country.

“This is something I would happily promote to other school districts because while we’re still collecting the data on the efficacy of the program, I believe it has great promise,” Evans says.

Evans adds that the plight of LGBTQ2S+ youth is being well documented, but is not necessarily being addressed with adequate mental health supports, particularly from municipalities and provinces. (The federal government is currently negotiating a dedicated mental health transfer with provinces.)

When it comes to the federal response to these results, Namwira points to the government’s 2SLGBTQI+ Projects Fund, and the Community Capacity Fund, which support local grassroots organizations that are often an educational resource within their respective communities. They also promote inclusivity in schools, libraries, workplaces and in community centres, through community programming.

“These are all key pieces of addressing the root causes of bullying,” Namwira says.

WAGE also has a gender-based violence youth awareness campaign called “It’s Not Just,” which points youth to relevant and safe resources in the event that they or a friend are experiencing violence. As well, Health Canada has produced Pride Guide 2022: Youth Strategies for Tackling Gender-Based Violence in Our Schools.

Slattery says that with awareness and education, this kind of information can support policy changes.

“I’m hopeful, but we need to remain vigilant to ensure that this message is being heard and listened to, and there are actually concrete steps to support it,” Slattery says.

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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