In her Grade 6 classroom, teacher Emily Belanger compiles a list on her whiteboard of words that have become hot buttons in pre-election Ontario.
Her hour-long lesson on gender identity, part of the province’s controversial sex-education curriculum, touches on concepts of masculinity and femininity and aims to teach her culturally diverse students that they are free to view themselves any way they want.
“If we continue to educate kids … they will accept people. They won’t make fun of people for looking a certain way or dressing a certain way or loving whomever they love,” said Ms. Belanger, a teacher at Joshua Creek Public School in Oakville.
Like the words on that whiteboard, Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum is a contentious election issue. Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford said he has heard concerns from many families, and if he becomes premier after the June 7 election, he would scrap it and consult with parents about a more age-appropriate program.
Tanya Granic Allen, whom Mr. Ford recently removed as a Progressive Conservative candidate over homophobic statements, has been a strong opponent of the sex-ed program. “This curriculum sexualizes children … and it does not respect parental rights,” Ms. Granic Allen said in an interview.
The Liberals, however, said there was wide consultation before the curriculum rollout in the fall of 2015: It included one parent from each of the province’s 4,000 elementary schools, 2,400 educators, 700 students in Grades 7 to 12 and 170 organizations, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Ontario Physical and Health Education Association ( OPHEA).
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the curriculum update, last done in 1998, was badly needed, and that Mr. Ford would be “dragging our province backwards” by repealing it.
The human development and sexual health component makes up less than 10 per cent of the wider health and physical-education curriculum, and handles such topics as consent, puberty, acceptance of same-sex couples and online safety.
The Globe and Mail analyzed some of the flash points, the content and how the curriculum compares with other jurisdictions.
One of the expectations: Identify body parts including genitalia (such as penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology.
George Kourtis, program co-ordinator for health and physical education at the Toronto District School Board, remembers having to explain to parents three years ago that Grade 1 teachers weren’t going to be showing naked body parts to the students. “That [misinformation] was translated [from the curriculum] and distributed in flyers. Parents would bring them in,” Mr. Kourtis said.
He added that staff spent time helping parents understand what was actually in the curriculum document and what their children would be learning in classrooms.
Other school boards had to assure parents that their six- and seven-year-olds wouldn’t be taught about having sex, and teachers wouldn’t be exposing children to graphic images or flash cards.
To this day, educators say there is still concern in some quarters about the particulars of the Grade 1 sex-ed curriculum. At Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto, for example, one Grade 1 class uses the term “private parts” instead of penis and vagina after many parents objected to parts of the curriculum. Some Thorncliffe Park parents pulled their kids out of school when the curriculum was released, but many of those students have since returned.
Experts noted that this concern among parents comes even though the expectations in the 1998 version of the curriculum were similar: Students were asked then, as they are now, to identify parts of their body by their proper names.
Further, other provinces including British Columbia and Alberta have similar curricula and expect students in Grade 1 to name body parts. Educators also inform children about appropriate and inappropriate ways of being touched.
Jen Gilbert, an associate professor in education at York University, said teaching children at an early age the correct anatomical terms promotes positive body image, self-confidence and, in the event of abuse, gives them the language to report inappropriate touch and get help.
“If we don’t want children to be ashamed of their bodies, we need to treat their bodies as if there is nothing to be ashamed of,” she said.
One the expectations: Describe how visible differences (such as skin, hair and eye colour, facial features, body size and shape, physical aids or different physical abilities, clothing, possessions) and invisible differences (including learning abilities, skills and talents, personal or cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, family background, personal preferences, allergies and sensitivities) make each person unique, and identify ways of showing respect for differences in others.
Ms. Granic Allen said her group, Parents as First Educators, has heard concerns from a number of parents that the curriculum introduces gender identity at such an early age. “Gender fluidity, which is not a proven concept, is very confusing to most adults, let alone to a child who is eight years old,” she said.
Educators, meanwhile, say that they have had to assure parents that the curriculum is not encouraging children to be homosexual. They also have to dispel myths among families that children can somehow be taught to be a boy or a girl.
Proponents of the curriculum say this is not a how-to manual, but rather a guide for educators on how to teach children to respect differences. It also teaches children that not all people fit into typical male and female stereotypes. Not all girls like to play with dolls and not all boys play with cars, for example.
Prof. Gilbert said children, even in Grade 3, already have a “sophisticated sense of themselves.”
“Many eight-year-olds have diverse families, including LGBTQ parents, and they may also have questions … about their own gender identity,” she said. “The curriculum needs to represent the many different kinds of families children live in. We are not introducing these topics to children. These issues are already part of their lives.”
One of the expectations: Identify factors that affect the development of a person’s self-concept (including environment, evaluations by others who are important to them, stereotypes, awareness of strengths and needs, social competencies, cultural and gender identity, support, body image, mental health and emotional well-being, physical abilities).
In Ms. Belanger’s classroom, the health lesson one morning earlier this month involved a student-driven list of words that described being male (penis, testosterone), female (vagina, estrogen), masculine (baseball hats, tuxedos, basketball shorts) and feminine (makeup, jewellery, high heels).
Ms. Belanger intentionally left the space under the headings man and woman blank, and when she asked her class the reason behind it, one boy raised his hand. “Because you can view yourselves any way you want,” he responded.
Ms. Belanger said the Grade 6 sexual-health curriculum is teaching her students to not stereotype, and also to be comfortable in their own bodies. “It needs to be talked about … They need to feel safe and accepted,” she said.
There is concern among some families that masturbation is mentioned in the Grade 6 curriculum, and in the Grade 7 program, some parents believe students will be learning about anal and oral sex.
Chris Markham, executive director of OPHEA, a not-for-profit organization that pushed the Ontario government to update its curriculum, said the concerns are unwarranted. Those references are optional “prompts,” which are there to support teachers in responding to student questions, he said. They were developed at the request of educators to help them provide fact-based answers if students ask questions, he said.
In Grade 7, students learn about identifying ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections, which could mean using condoms or delaying intercourse.The reference to oral and anal sex in Grade 7 is included so that if students ask questions, for example, teachers will know how to approach the topic and ensure students are aware of the risks associated with any form of sexual behaviour, proponents say. The curriculum does not provide any instruction on how to perform those acts. The “teacher prompt” on masturbation states that it is common and not harmful, and is one way of learning about a person’s body.
“Information needs to be presented in a straightforward way to respond to a range of needs of students,” Mr. Markham said. “Teachers have repeatedly stated that students often ask questions on this topic, and they need guidance on how to answer in a factual and consistent manner.”
He added: “If parents could just take the time to sit down and look through the curriculum, I think they would be calmed.”