On questions of government, politics and education, Canadians would be foolish to ignore Brian Peckford.
The Newfoundland school teacher became a Progressive Conservative MLA in 1972. He was premier from 1979 to 1989 and a key part of the federal-provincial negotiations that resulted in the 1982 Constitution. The 81-year-old is the only premier from that time still living.
When controversy rose over the million-person march for children Sept. 20, Peckford had no doubts. He openly supported the march.
“It was about the right of parents to know what was going on in the school as it related to sexual education and gender education for their children, and that the parents have a right to participate,” Peckford told this author.
“The schools belong to the people. The schools never created the people, the people created the schools and that people should have the last say on something like this.”
However, the Newfoundland and Labrador PCs opposed the march. In a Sept. 20 Facebook post, the party said it “stands firmly with the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.”
“Party and caucus members have proudly attended each No Space for Hate rally and will continue to do so.
“Our party agrees wholeheartedly with today’s counter-protest: there is no space for hate in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Peckford said he was “totally shocked and surprised” to discover the PC stance. Like the party’s most recent leader, Ches Crosbie, he believes his party should have stood with parents instead.
“This is an abomination of what public education is all about. I completely, as a former leader of the PC Party of Newfoundland, disassociate myself from these activities of the present iteration of the PC Party,” he said.
“It’s a sad day for me, and I’m sure for a lot of [party] supporters.”
Peckford said it was wrong to characterize march participants as hateful.
“It has nothing to do with whether you support or oppose the LGBTQ community. It has to do with whether parents have rights to know what’s going on in their schools as relates to the curriculum that’s being taught. And that’s where the emphasis should be.
“For them to just take this one side without explaining the whole thing about parental rights is very sad. It really is a step back in the Progressive Conservative movement in Newfoundland.”
Asked why the party would take this stance, Peckford found further cause to lament.
“I suspect that, sadly, they’re not standing up for principle. They’re standing up for political opportunism,” he said.
“They have jumped the gun on thinking that the majority of people–really parents, don’t care about what their children are taught in school and I think that would be [a] miscalculation.”
An Angus Reid poll in August found that 43% of Canadian respondents thought parents need to give consent before a child changes how they are identified at school. Another 35% thought parents should at least be informed.
Only 14% of respondents thought parents should be left out of it, as was the policy in New Brunswick–until recently. Premier Blaine Higgs changed that policy. He overcame an initial backlash thanks to a mother in his province that started a supportive campaign and petition drive at DontDeleteParents.ca..
Angus Reid also found that 64% of Conservative voters support parental consent in these situations, versus 30% of Liberal voters and 20% of NDP voters. Conservatives can own this issue and even win votes.
Peckford received a Bachelor of Education at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and taught for five years in a rural community. He said it was “most revolting” to find his former party standing against principles he upheld as a teacher, an MLA, and a premier.
“It goes against the principle of parents having knowledge of what’s happening in their schools that their children are in. And, when new things like sex and gender education are taught in schools, the first people who should know and be consulted about these kinds of changes being introduced should be the parents,” he said.
“Political parties over the last number of years have seen this radical shift in the policy-making of education, as relates to curriculum development in the school. And, unfortunately, where we sit now today, we have no mainstream political parties who are advocating for parents.”
Peckford, now retired on Vancouver Island, said he found cause for encouragement in his adopted province. On Sept. 20, B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Rustad made a statement aligned with parents and conservative values.
Rustad said he would end the province’s “divisive” sexual orientation and gender identity program and “stand with parents who are demanding honesty, transparency, and accountability from our public education system.”
Furthermore, “Women should have safe spaces in our schools, and we must have safe and fair competitive sports for women and girls. This is just common sense.”
Unfortunately common sense is increasingly uncommon. Thankfully it still has champions in a few brave political figures and a million parents.
Lee Harding is Research Fellow for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.