Counter-protest in Fort McMurray outnumbers protesters against gender, sexual education

Supporters of the 2SLGBTQI+ community had a bigger turnout than a planned protest against sexual, gender education in schools.

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No more than 30 people protesting how sex and gender are taught in classrooms spent Saturday afternoon near the Fort McMurray court house on Franklin Avenue. But they were met with dozens of counter-protesters who started outside Peter Pond Mall and crossed the street to take up most space outside the court house.

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The people opposing sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) education in schools are part of 1 Million March 4 Children, a nation-wide protest movement that has rallied in dozens of cities and towns across Canada. A Fort McMurray rally against SOGI in September brought hundreds of people who marched from the Jubilee Centre to the Catholic and public school divisions.

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Pride YMM, an advocacy group for the 2SLGBTQI+ community in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo, organized Saturday’s counter-protest after learning another rally was happening.

The anti-SOGI protesters were disappointed with their turnout. Councillor Shafiq Dogar made a brief appearance, but did not stay long. Many supporters at the September rally were Muslim, and protesters on Saturday blamed their turnout on Muslim supporters feeling rattled because of the Israel-Gaza War. Connie Shields, an organizer of the local anti-SOGI protest, insisted Unifor and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) paid Pride YMM to protest her side.

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Mitchel Bowers, board chair of Pride YMM, laughed when told about this accusation and said his supporters showed up because they truly supported the cause.

“I’m really happy with the support we have. Fort McMurray really turned out for the 2SLGBTQI+ community,” Bowers said in an interview. “I would have loved to have even more show up, but I’m comparing the size of the counter protests and the protests. I’m really happy with our numbers. Our voice needs to be heard louder than theirs.”

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Protesters against teaching sexual and gender education in schools in downtown Fort McMurray on Saturday, October 21, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

No arrests or fights at Saturday rallies

SOGI opponents said they had no problems with the 2SLGBTQI+ community, but objected to their values being taught in schools. This includes the use of alternative pronouns for staff and students. They felt bullied into accepting the values of 2SLGBTQI+ community, when they instead wanted a “live and let live” approach between people, regardless of their sexual or gender identity.

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“We do not hate them and we are not hateful people, this is a peaceful protest. But we do not want SOGI taught to children in schools,” said Zulkifl Mujahid, an organizer of local anti-SOGI protests, in an interview. “Children cannot consent to any of this.”

Bowers described the anti-SOGI protests as hateful and misinformed. He said it is important students see people with different sexual and gender identities represented in their lives. This teaches children about differences and is good emotionally for students identifying as 2SLGBTQI+, he said.

Bowers, who identifies as two-spirited, never saw queer people represented growing up. This made him feel alienated and that there was something wrong with him. He attempted suicide multiple times. Bowers fears keeping SOGI education out of schools will cause similar harm to students.

“If you choose not to teach children about an identity or reality, the queer children who are amongst them don’t see themselves represented. They ask the question, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ That was my experience as a kid I didn’t see where we were growing up,” said Bowers.

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“Teaching sexuality is not sexualization. Teaching people about love and acceptance is what we’re teaching.”

The weekend and September rallies had no violent clashes or arrests. Only two protesters allied with Pride YMM spoke with anti-SOGI protesters. Talks were not heated, but both sides felt the other side was unreasonable.

Pride YMM also rejected claims that anti-SOGI protesters “invited Pride YMM to sit at the table” and talk. The group also doubted their sincerity, arguing none of the local organizers of the anti-SOGI protests have joined Pride YMM’s free online seminars or workshops on inclusion.

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