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Gender-neutral bathrooms in public schools considered
Yk1 expresses support for transgender community; mixed reaction to the possibility of 'inclusive' washrooms

Meagan Leonard
Northern News Services
Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Gender-neutral washrooms could be in place in Yellowknife Education District No. 1 schools in the future.

Supervisor of Instruction Anita Griffore said the issue is a hot one during renovation discussions at the school district, with students advocating for more gender-inclusive spaces. As the concept becomes more of a societal norm, she said the district is feeling pressure to find a way to make accommodations.

"We have children who are transgender and they have the right to use the washroom of their chosen gender," she said. "The best practice right now is when they're building future schools, they're making gender-neutral bathrooms - that's where we need to go in the future."

When such changes would come to existing schools remains unknown as the age of current structures makes upgrades expensive and difficult, Griffore explained. She imagines gender-neutral bathrooms would be available alongside traditional single-sex facilities.

"We may have a separate washroom that is designated gender-neutral," she said, adding that although it is not yet the norm city-wide, in the past the school board has been the one to lead the way when it comes to societal changes. "When kids with (special needs) were integrated into the normal school system, schools kind of led the way. There weren't any road maps on how to do it, but it became the law and the community had to follow."

NWT Pride outreach co-ordinator Makenzie Zouboules said gender-inclusive bathrooms have the potential to make a huge difference in the lives of transgender youth and it is something she is excited to see implemented in Yellowknife schools.

"There's a lot of data and background on creating pride spaces and how that can make students and youth feel more welcome and increase (class) attendance," she said. "(The school board) is showing support, not only in an emotional capacity, but in a really tangible way."

Zouboules said for many transgender people, simple things like using a public washroom can become a daily struggle.

"It's having to make a choice, it's confronting violence and confronting a binary that a lot of folks don't agree with," she said. "Having the freedom to meet your basic needs is something a lot of Yellowknifers would really support ... we look forward to working with youth to put this into action."

Yk1 board chair John Stephenson said supporting the LGBTQ community is part of the board's healthy-lifestyles strategic plan as it promotes positive relationships. He said although operational issues are ultimately the decision of the superintendent, the board is open to hearing presentations from staff and students, and decisions would be made on a school-by-school basis.

"It's not a board-level decision to change how washrooms are used but it fits well within a board priority of healthy lifestyles and good citizenship," said Stephenson.

He would not say whether or not he specifically supports gender-neutral washrooms.

Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins said, while he thinks it is a good idea, he doesn't see it as a possibility until lengthy discussions with parents, students and teachers are had.

"You've got to get people talking about it and introduce the conversation long before the implementation or ... people will get upset," he said. "If you're in a very liberal family it might not be a big deal to you, but if you're in a conservative family it may have an effect."

Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro echoed the sentiment. She said although it is being brought to the forefront of political discussions elsewhere in the country, it is still a relatively new concept for Yellowknifers.

"I think we're going to have people on both sides of the argument - people who think it's a good thing, people who think we shouldn't be going there and I'm sure there will be people who will express the opinion that it will make people uncomfortable," she said. "But there are gender-neutral washrooms all over the world at this point so I think it's something that needs to be considered."

Deputy mayor Linda Bussey said the topic has come up at Yellowknife city council but no concrete decisions have yet been made. Nevertheless, she said with Yk1 leading the way, it likely will not be long before the city follows suit.

"It's something we need to address ... I think the next council is going to have to make a decision," she said. "Yk1 is very proactive, I think they're leading the way ... awareness goes a long way and education goes even further."

Department of Education, Culture and Employment spokesperson Tami Johnson said the department does not have any specific renovation plans pertaining to gender neutral washrooms right now, but did not rule it out going forward.

"The topic of gender-neutral washrooms has not been raised during discussions about infrastructure needs," she told Yellowknifer in an e-mail. "However, the department will discuss this issue with educational authorities as part of the priority setting process for infrastructure investments."

In May, the City of Edmonton voted unanimously to implement gender-inclusive bathrooms in all current and future municipal facilities. The decision came on the heels of the controversial federal "Bathroom Bill" - a proposed amendment to private members bill C-279 which would prohibit transgender people from accessing single-sex washrooms in public spaces and government facilities such as prisons, shelters and locker rooms.

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