By Rick Telfer

The newly elected Progressive Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford announced on July 11 that it was repealing the 2015 sexual education update to the health and physical education curriculum for elementary school children. The repeal was one of Ford’s key election campaign promises.

The former Liberal government, under then-premier Kathleen Wynne, had implemented the 2015 curriculum update following widespread consultation with parents, students, health experts, and educators. Reports from over 70 health-related organizations were considered in the consultations and more than 4,000 parents were involved in the consultation process.

We live in an era where government belligerence necessitates civil disobedience. We are going to resolve this out in the community, where people stand up.

The update included additions such as teaching students – depending on their grade level – about:

  • the correct names of major body parts including reproductive organs;
  • physical changes during puberty including breast development in females;
  • masturbation as a normal and healthy behaviour;
  • different sexual orientations and gender identities;
  • Indigenous teachings on human development, puberty, and healthy relationships;
  • sexual harassment, sexting, and online safety;
  • the varied understandings of abstinence and factors affecting decision-making leading to sexual activity;
  • the proper names of sexually transmitted infections; and
  • consent defined as a clear “yes,” with “no” or unclear responses meaning “no consent.”

After repealing the update to the curriculum, the Ford government instructed the public school systems to revert to the 1998 health

Fae Johnston at Ottawa rally to save sex education, July 15, 2018, at the Human Rights Monument at 220 Elgin St.
Photo: Rick Telfer

and physical education curriculum, which gives little to no mention of the topics covered in the 2015 update. The old curriculum, for example, does not teach the names of genitalia, does not teach about breast development, does not mention masturbation, does not mention specific gender identities, and makes no mention of consent.

In an opinion column published on Jul. 25 by SooToday.com, Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, said that we “know from research and practice that having the language to name our body parts, being empowered to understand consent and healthy relationships, and being able to address issues such as sexism and homophobia helps kids navigate their social worlds and in some cases, saves their lives.”

Hammond took specific aim at the “small minority of vocal religious and socially conservative parents [who] oppose the current curriculum.” He said that many of them “appear misinformed about what is actually in the curriculum document that guides classroom discussion.”

The Campaign Life Coalition, for example, has been actively lobbying Doug Ford. It states on its website that “Kathleen Wynne’s age-inappropriate and anti-scientific sex curriculum… puts children’s physical and psychological health at risk” and “makes them more vulnerable to sexual predators, not less so.”

The Campaign Life Coalition calls itself “the national pro-life organization” and opposes abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, reproductive technologies, and equal rights for LGBTQ people.

A rally “to save sex ed” was held at the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa on Jul. 15. Fae Johnstone, one of the rally’s organizers and a sexual health educator, told The Leveller in an interview on Sep. 12 that Doug Ford won the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in part by appealing to hardline social conservatives.

“That is a significant base of voters who not only vote for the PCs but go door knocking for them,” Johnstone said. “I don’t think that Ford cares about sex ed. I think that he cares about catering to, and awarding, his political allies for the political favours they gave him.”

Soon after, in a media release on Aug. 23, Michael Bryant, the Executive Director and General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), called the Ford government’s scrapping of the 2015 curriculum “a discriminatory misuse of government power – a ham-fisted dog whistle of bigotry, of homophobia, dressed up as a consultation fix.”

In the same release, the CCLA announced that it was launching a legal challenge to the repeal of the 2015 curriculum on the basis of violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and Ontario’s Education Act.

Then, in a media release on Sep. 4, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) announced a legal challenge of its own, calling the repeal of the 2015 curriculum “an unprecedented and unnecessary attack on kids and professional educators.”

Reacting to the Ford government’s establishment of a “snitch line” to report teachers who continue to teach aspects of the 2015 curriculum, ETFO called it a “waste of public funds” because “it ignores the systems already in place for parents and educators to deal constructively with issues at the school level.” ETFO also said it was “concerned that this anonymous portal will become an outlet for bullies, hate and potentially a mechanism to out lesbian, gay, and bisexual educators.”

Like the CCLA, ETFO takes the position that “the government’s actions are in direct conflict with professional obligations that are enshrined within the Education Act and the Standards of Practice of the Ontario College of Teachers” and that “the government’s directive is also in conflict with the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.”

Shawn Menard, Zone 9 (Rideau-Vanier/Capital) Trustee of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, told The Leveller in an interview on Sep. 12 that the Ford government’s repeal of the 2015 curriculum was the topic he was most emailed about by parents “in the last several years.” Further, “nobody was in favour of [repealing] it.”

“This is a reversion to a less accepting government and one that denies that there are gender identity issues and real sexual education challenges for students that are questioning their identities,” Menard added. One the best ways for people to express their anger, he said, “is to not just write the Premier but actually focus on their local board of trustees” by encouraging those local representatives “to take action.”

Joel Harden, the MPP for Ottawa Centre, recently-elected as a member of the now-Official Opposition Ontario NDP caucus, was blunt in his assessment of the Ford government’s objectives. In an interview on Sep. 13 he told The Leveller that “[w]e are dealing with a belligerent, focussed government that cares about one thing and one thing only – and that’s reshaping the province in their own image.”

“They invoke the language of populism, they invoke the language of standing up for the hard work done by a person who works at one or many minimum wage jobs, and their goal is to make sure those people are heard or more money is put back into their pockets,” Harden added.  “So, they invoke that ‘standing up for the regular person’ rhetoric and, in this case, who they’re standing up for, we know… are people who will not acknowledge that queer and trans families, and kids, exist.”

“They play to their base and they use populism to grow their base, and they fundraise off everything, so that’s what we’re dealing with – and I think the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can make sense of why they go to the wall on everything,” he said.

When asked about strategies for resisting the Ford government’s agenda, Harden said that “we live in an era where belligerence necessitates civil disobedience. That’s where we are, and we are not going to convince them out of their position… It’s just a flat out fight and we are not going to resolve it here in the legislature. This is just one site of struggle. We are going to resolve this out in the community, where people stand up.”

In the meantime, Chris Farley Ratcliffe, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, wants parents to know that up-to-date, comprehensive sex education is available from his organization.

“People can go to our website or give us a call,” he explained. “We offer counselling sessions, too, if people want to come in and learn about birth control or they want to learn about gender identity, or whatever. We’re happy to sit down and have a chat with them. We’ve also had some initial conversations with the school board and the Ottawa Carleton Assembly of School Councils about offering workshops for parents through schools on how to talk to your kids about sexual health.”

Ratcliffe also suggested a YouTube series being produced by Nadine Thornhill, a professional sexual health educator, in which she teaches the 2015 curriculum. He also recommended a guide for teaching sexual health education produced by the organization Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.

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