How Canadian social work educators let the enemy through the gate
Legend has it the plight of a girl named Mary Ellen is the reason we have child protection agencies today.
In late 19th century New York City, a woman named Etta Angell Wheeler was alerted to reports of a small girl being severely physically abused by her caretakers (who were not her parents). Finding no one willing to help, Ms. Wheeler appealed to animal cruelty activists to file a petition to remove Mary Ellen from her home on the basis that she was technically an animal.
That much is true, but there's more to the story. The press was already talking about how to stop cruelty against children; however it was taboo to criticize how parents discipline their children. Mary Ellen caught their attention because her abusers were her guardians, not her parents. Meaning fair game.
At the same time, women’s rights activists were demanding changes to make life safer for women and children, such as equality for women in the family. It’s no coincidence the child protection organization was founded by well-connected, wealthy men who wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.
Flashforward a hundred years and we're going backwards. In 2015 and 2017, the government of Ontario passed legislation that put gender non-conforming, autistic, and traumatized children at the mercy of an ideology that has no interest in protecting them (no matter how much trans-rights activists claim they do).
Gender ideology is a belief system that contends a man is a woman if he simply declares it, and vice versa. This is called “Self-ID”. To question this belief is not permitted, unless you want to be the one being threatened, publicly vilified and abused. But when you ignore the threats and take a closer look, it's clear that Ontario’s children are not being protected by this legislation. Rather, they've been abandoned.
The Ontario legislation that put gender ideology into law
While we appear to have come a long way since Mary Ellen, reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Child protection agencies may be staffed by social workers, a regulated profession governed by a licensing body with a code of ethics, standards of practice, and principles of ethical practice, but these safeguards and standards are being erased by the recent infiltration of a dangerous ideology into Canadian law, making it impossible for social workers to do their jobs.
Two relatively recent pieces of legislation codified gender ideology into law in the province of Ontario:
In 2015, Bill 77, An Act to amend the Health Insurance Act and the Regulated Health Professions Act, accomplished two things. First, licensing bodies (like the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers) must obey tenets of the ideology. Second, it made any therapeutic approach used by a regulated health professional uninsurable if they don't follow the tenets of gender ideology. So if a three-year-old girl spontaneously says "I'm a boy" for any reason during a medical visit, her doctor is bound by law to verbally agree with the imaginative toddler and follow up with affirmative care that would harm her. The alternative is losing his or her license to practice plus not getting paid.
Two years later, Bill 89 added gender ideology to the Child, Youth and Family Services Act so that gender identity and gender expression must be considered with regard to the “best interests, protection, and well-being of children.” Notably, the legislation changed how to determine the best interests of the child. It now considers “The child’s views and wishes, given due weight in accordance with the child’s age and maturity.” (We’ll revisit the problem with this in relation to gender ideology later). The consideration of a child’s religion has also been replaced with, “race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, family diversity, disability, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.”
Bill 89 also asserts “The least disruptive course of action that is available and is appropriate in a particular case to help a child, including the provision of prevention services, early intervention service and community support services, should be considered.” This cautious approach is clearly in conflict with the requirement to provide immediate “affirmation”.
The field of social work has always concerned itself with power imbalances and their impact on marginalized and oppressed people. It’s no surprise the profession took an interest in supporting the rights of trans people in the late 1990s. What's surprising are the number of safeguarding boundaries for women and children that were undone along the way, the enactment of Bills 77 and 89 in Ontario being just two examples.
How was a dangerous ideology enshrined in provincial law?
How, when and where did the system fail?
Before diving into what happened in Canada, we need to look at the roots of gender ideology to grasp how its foundation corrupts the rights and freedoms of women and vulnerable children.
The roots of gender ideology
In 1992, a small group of trans-identified-men (TiM) lawyers met in Houston, Texas to draft The International Bill of Gender Rights (IBGR). The rights were officially adopted by the organization at the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy (ICTLEP) in Houston, Texas, 1993.
Whether any of these are actually ”rights” is questionable (more accurately they’re demands), but four in particular are red flags that signal the coming breakdown in child safeguarding:
● The Right To Define Gender Identity
● The Right To Free Expression Of Gender Identity
● The Right Of Access To Gendered Space And Participation In Gendered Activity
● The Right To Freedom From Psychiatric Diagnosis Or Treatment
So what’s the problem? Right off the bat, these demands are in conflict with women’s rights adopted by United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979. CEDAW defines discrimination against women as:
"...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."
Importantly they state:
“The Convention is the only human rights treaty which affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations.”
We can’t know how familiar Canadian social work educators were with the IBRG in the pre-internet 1990s, but we can reasonably expect the profession to have been familiar with the sex-based rights outlined in CEDAW in 1979, as well as its references to how culture shaped gender roles that were largely disadvantaging women. Shortly after in 1982, sex-based rights were enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
When you contrast the IBRG with CEDAW, it’s clear they cannot logically co-exist.
If “culture and tradition [are] influential forces shaping gender roles,” how can any one person be granted the “right” to define gender identity? Gender roles emerge as a shared understanding amongst a community of people, not as a definition dictated by a small group of people to everyone else.
CEDAW also emphasized that gender roles disproportionately disadvantage women. That’s why the Ad Hoc Committee of Canadian Women on the Constitution brought 1300 women to the Canadian parliament on February 14, 1981 – to demand equal rights for women in the Charter, which became Section 28.
Somehow, the trans movement has successfully injected the notion of “gender identity” into multiple Canadian laws without anyone noticing that women’s sex-based rights, their lived experience, were being eroded. Given that the Charter supersedes Canadian law, doesn’t that mean gender identity “rights” are unconstitutional and illegal?
Currently, gender ideology is so pervasive in the Canadian justice system, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms may not help you in a Canadian court. It’s already given judges the power to tell a father he cannot speak of his opposition to transing his own child without facing contempt of court charges.
It sounds unbelievable. How could this be happening? Strangely, it was aided and abetted by Canadian social work educators who ignored their own academic standards for scholarly work.
What happened to social work scholarship in Canada?
In 2011, several of these IBRG’s “rights” permeated a themed issue of the Canadian Review of Social Work (CRSW), the scholarly publication of the Canadian Association of Social Work Education. The entirety of Volume 1, Issue 28 of the CRSW was dedicated to the topic of gender and sexuality.
One article in particular helps showcase the breakdown in standards. “Unsuitable Bodies” was authored by Jake Pyne, a TiF who was a homelessness and housing advocate for trans people in Toronto prior to the publication of this article. At the time of publication in 2011, Pyne notes that trans-inclusive training had been available in Toronto for 10 years, starting in 2001.
Even though Pyne doesn’t explicitly cite the IBGR, the article illustrates how its demands trumped:
The human rights of women as outlined by CEDAW in 1979;
The journal’s standards for publication as outlined on their current website (an example of the standards in 2011 was not available online); and
The purpose of “Unsuitable Bodies” was to shine a light on the barriers trans people faced in accessing sex-based social services, specifically homeless shelters, which on the surface sounds like a reasonable problem for a social work academic journal to discuss.
But Pyne argues for using a term he calls “cisnormativity” as a lens to imagine social services that truly welcome trans people. “Rather than focusing solely on acts of discrimination, cisnormativity highlights the privileging of a non-trans norm,” he writes.
Essentially, cisnormativity makes the claim that homeless women and children are somehow privileged while coping with unsafe and desperate circumstances. Through the lens of cisnormativity, Pyne sets up a framework that can be used as a cudgel to accuse people of transphobia who actually are doing nothing more than trying to survive and protect their children by seeking appropriate services.
In short, Pyne’s article is a case study in how gender ideology, as founded by the IBRG, led the anti-oppression profession astray.
Cisnormativity: the pathway to make trans “rights” human rights
Pyne’s argument begins by explaining the foundational concept of “cissexual,” coined by a German academic named Volkmar Sigusch. “Cissexual” describes anyone who isn’t transsexual, meaning 99.7% of the population. Incidentally, Sigusch also said he believes pedophilia should be recognized as a legitimate sexual orientation for those who don’t act on their impulses to rape children. According to Sigusch, “Childish eroticism is not only full of delights, it is also necessary.”
Pyne does not mention or cite Sigusch, nor is he named in the list of references as the founder of “cissexual”. Needless to say, omitting any reference to a pedophilia supporter in an academic social work journal for educators is beyond negligent. This is particularly true when the article is proposing policy that would allow sexual predators to “Self-ID” their way into a homeless shelter used by vulnerable women and children.
Pyne uses Sigusch’s concept of “cissexual” as he intended – to put anyone who is not transsexual into a single category. After labeling anyone who is not trans “cissexual,” the next step is to disparage them as “cisnormative.”
According to Pyne, cisnormativity “describe[s] the assumption that all those born male will naturally become men, and all those born female will naturally become women.” Some of the scholars Pyne cites also claim this “assumption is so pervasive that it’s never talked about,” without considering that it’s never talked about because it’s not actually an assumption – it’s just a fact. Pyne doesn’t prove or explain how it’s possible for someone born male to ‘naturally become a woman’.
After labelling 99.7% of the population as “cisnormative,” the next step is to accuse this group of something nefarious. “Cisnormativity can be understood as the belief system underpinning transphobia,” says Pyne. If you believe that people born male can only “naturally become men” you are transphobic, meaning you “have an irrational fear or hatred of trans people.”
The final step within the cisnormativity framework is vilifying any institution that protects women’s sex-based rights, like women’s shelters and homeless shelters. Pyne says that transphobia should be used to call out specific acts of discrimination, while cisnormativity should be used to describe any system that bases its services on biological sex. That means anyone who works, lives and benefits from a system built on sex-based rights enshrined in the Charter are by default transphobic and discriminatory, even when no specific act of discrimination has been documented.
Cisnormativity effectively removes the need to prove that any discrimination based on transphobia has actually occurred. Incredibly, Pyne even makes the explicit claim that transphobia, “often occurs in the absence of direct discrimination.”
That means within the cisnormativity framework, no one is safe from a false accusation because no evidence or due process is required to prove it. If you question the notion that men can’t “naturally become women” you’re guilty of transphobia.
Enacting gender ideology based on the concept of cisnormativity into law doesn’t just violate women’s sex-based rights, it violates everyone’s Charter based rights to free expression and due process.
Gender ideology: a game of jenga that’s ready to fall
When we start to pull out the concepts and demands that make up the foundation for trans “rights”, it becomes clear gender ideology is nothing but a fragile tower that’s sure to topple if we shine a light on its flaws, one block at a time.
“Unsuitable Bodies” is merely one of those blocks, but it’s a notable one. To see an article devoid of evidence or knowledge of Canadian law in an academic journal for social work educators isn’t just puzzling, it’s alarming. There’s clear conflict between the gender ideology’s concept of cisnormativity and social work ethics, standards and principles in Canada.
What’s especially troubling about this failure in maintaining professional and scholarly standards is the core of social work practice is the social worker/client relationship. Conducting and modeling the principles of healthy relationships isn’t just a part of their practice, it IS the practice.
Social workers use the professional/client relationship to serve oppressed and vulnerable people by building rapport and trust within appropriate boundaries. The standards are in place to acknowledge the power imbalance inherent to the relationship so that vulnerable clients can safely put their trust in a social worker when they need one the most.
When that relationship is corrupted by abandoning social work ethics, standards and principles, its foundation becomes eroded beyond recognition and makes it impossible for social workers to do their jobs effectively or responsibly.
In the next article, we’ll examine in more detail how publishing this article in violation of academic standards as well as social work ethics, standards and principles contributed to a breakdown in safeguarding vulnerable women and children.