On September 20, in cities and towns across Canada, protesters flooded the streets. The “1 Million March 4 Children” was organized by a handful of right-wing and religious groups ostensibly united by a mission to protect children from “indoctrination and sexualization.” From Victoria to Sudbury to Charlottetown, they gathered with signs proclaiming the various dangers of godlessness, pedophilia, public schools, unions, Justin Trudeau, and COVID-19 vaccines. Other signs bore the simple message “Protect parental rights.”

The amorphous refrain of “parental rights” has been ubiquitous lately. In June, New Brunswick education and early childhood development minister Bill Hogan announced changes to the provincial LGBTQI2S+ policy that would require schools to get parental consent before allowing a child under sixteen to change their name or pronouns, saying that “parents deserve to be respected.” In August, Saskatchewan minister of education Dustin Duncan implemented a similar policy, affirming “the important role that parents and guardians have in protecting and supporting their children.” At an event in Ontario, which has not yet amended any education policies, premier Doug Ford told supporters, “Most important is the parents’ rights . . . it’s not up to the teachers, it’s not up to the school boards, to indoctrinate our kids.” In September, then Manitoba premier Heather Stefanson promised to enhance parental rights in schools but dodged questions on what precisely that would entail. And this month, Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe announced he would invoke the notwithstanding clause “to pass legislation to protect parents’ rights.”

The meaning of these vague declarations was made more explicit early last month at the federal Conservative Party’s policy convention, where a majority of delegates endorsed a policy that would ban children from receiving gender-affirming care, amid pleas from a convention delegate to “please protect our kids.” If that slogan sounds familiar—along with related calls to #SaveOurChildren and #LeaveOurChildrenAlone—it’s because they’re all drawn from the same poisoned well, an adaptable and durable conspiracy theory that children are being exploited by a global cabal of powerful, left-wing pedophiles.

Despite its innocuous label, the “parental rights” refrain did not begin with parents at all. It began, instead, with the believers of “Pizzagate,” the 2016 conspiracy theory that alleged Hillary Clinton and her aide, John Podesta, were running a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlour in Washington, DC. When “Pizzagate” mutated into QAnon, it expanded to imply a powerful worldwide network of cannibalistic, satanic pedophiles. Believers pledged their support for Donald Trump, who was supposedly waging a secret war to save these imperilled children. A 2022 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in the US found that 16 percent of Americans believe in the tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which has also seeped into Canada.

Part of what makes QAnon so resilient is its constant assimilation of other conspiracies, particularly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as many people became convinced of shadowy efforts by the government to covertly test drugs on the public (something 31 percent of Canadians believed, according to a 2021 poll) or by Bill Gates to microchip the unwitting public through vaccines (believed by 13 percent of Canadians, according to another poll from 2022). During the isolating, anxious early months of the pandemic, QAnon’s views were also laundered through the wholesome aesthetics of social media parenting influencers, who galvanized their followers around the alleged threats to innocent children. These anxieties have intersected to create an acute moral panic, which posits that parents and “freedom fighters” must stand between their children and the constant menace of “groomers” who seek to brainwash and exploit.

In Canada, these conspiracy theorists have focused many of their efforts on drag shows and sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) curricula, which are allegedly the means by which children are “indoctrinated” and groomed for abuse. While it’s nothing new for some parents to object to classroom education about sex and gender identity, it’s these specific terms that connect the current tinfoil-hatted “parents’ rights” uprising to its toxic predecessors. Canadian protesters have also drawn explicit comparisons between LGBTQ2+ education and the abuse inflicted on Indigenous children in residential schools, attempting to compare a real legacy of abuse to an imaginary one. Protesters against one drag show in Mississauga even donned orange shirts emblazoned with hand prints, which evoked those worn to honour residential school survivors and victims. The victims imagined by this movement are not queer and transgender youth, who benefit from education and environments that recognize their existence and affirm their value, but ostensibly children who have somehow been corrupted by learning about the existence of these peers. There is no evidence that LGBTQ2+ education harms cisgender youth, while for their transgender peers, it can be life saving: transgender youth are more than seven times as likely to attempt suicide as cisgender youth, and LGBTQ2+ education in schools has been shown to decrease that risk.

That Canadian politicians are reciting the latest talking points from a deranged and dangerous conspiracy is as baffling as it is alarming. But unlike references to satanic elites harvesting the blood of children, the rhetoric of “parental rights” is delicately calibrated to avoid raising the alarm among moderate voters while also masquerading as a representation of the average Canadian’s concerns. However, according to the Canadian Press, a University of New Brunswick professor’s right to information request found that not a single parent in the province had emailed the education ministry with concerns about not being consulted regarding their child’s use of a different name or pronouns. An investigation by the province’s Child and Youth Advocate found that just three individuals had emailed the education ministry about LGBTQI2S+ content in schools, none of which were legitimate complaints or specifically referenced the policy, despite minister Hogan’s claim that he had received “hundreds” of complaints.

By playing along, as BC United party leader Kevin Falcon did when he told reporter Katie DeRosa that protesters have “legitimate concerns,” politicians are sending clear signals to the conspiracy theorists who cluster on the far right of the political spectrum that they are willing to indulge their beliefs, if doing so will bolster their odds of winning the next election.

Even if one were to ignore the swamp of delusional thinking that birthed the “parental rights” movement and argue that perhaps parents do deserve to know what’s happening in their children’s lives—even if those children would prefer not to tell them—they might find that this desire is on shaky legal ground. Florence Ashley, an assistant professor in the faculty of law at the University of Alberta and adjunct associate professor at the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre, points out that Canadian law affirms that children are people, not the property of their parents or anyone else. Canada is also a signatory to the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes their rights to freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and personal privacy. Parental authority, Ashley says, is about recognizing the unique role of parents in supporting their children and protecting them from harm. It would be challenging to prove that prohibiting them from using the name and pronouns that align with their identity—decisions that are widely supported by medical professionals, including the Canadian Paediatric Society—is in their best interests.

According to some critics, the provincial policies may well be in conflict with rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as the right to liberty and equality. On September 6, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit against New Brunswick for violating those constitutional rights, one week after a community organization filed a similar lawsuit in Saskatchewan. But what’s worrisome, Ashley says, is Saskatchewan’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause to force its “parental rights” policy through. “Here you have a government that wants to override human rights as part of a moral panic,” says Ashley. “That’s a deeply concerning development.”

While Canadian law does recognize that parents have some authority over their children, Ashley says, that authority is contingent on acting in the child’s best interests. Introducing “parental rights” policies might sound like a solution to parents who wish to control their child’s identity, but such policies may introduce new problems. “We don’t want a situation where you have a parent who vetoes their child’s use of name and pronouns and then ends up having to go to custody court or to a child protection hearing because they’re disallowing something that’s in the best interest of the child and making a decision is going to be harmful for the child,” says Ashley.

The unfortunate truth is that parents do not always have their child’s best interests at heart, and many children are not safe at home. The majority of Canadians who suffered physical abuse as children endured it at the hands of a parent or step-parent. For all the fear mongering about predatory teachers, children are fifteen times more likely to experience sexual abuse at the hands of family members. And transgender youth report far higher rates of both physical and sexual violence compared to cisgender peers. “All these policies do is empower parents who are transphobic parents,” says Ashley. “[They’re] prejudiced parents who are going to harm their children, and [it’s] granting them a legal authority to do so.”

By mid-morning on September 20, it was clear the #1MillionMarchers had overestimated their numbers; in a livestream from the Ottawa march, a participant complained that they had been surrounded by a much larger group that had gathered in support of trans rights. In Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax, and several other cities, the marchers were vastly outnumbered by counter protesters. It was also clear that the veneer of “parental rights” as a movement grounded in genuine concern for the well-being of children had cracked, revealing its ugly foundations: in Ottawa, one protester draped a Nazi flag on a memorial to Indigenous veterans, while another in Vancouver alleged that Jews were behind the abuse of children.

It will be tougher now for the politicians who have spoken up for “parents’ rights” to pretend that they are not pandering to the radicalized fringes of Canadian society. The rest of us can agree that protecting children is important. What’s even more important is recognizing their right to protect themselves.

Michelle Cyca
Michelle Cyca is a contributing writer for The Walrus.