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Canada Ontario government’s lawyer says teachers can use own judgment in sex-ed lessons

Elementary-school teachers can use their “professional judgment” when developing lesson plans and have a duty to teach in a way that’s inclusive of all students, a lawyer for the Ontario government argued in a hearing that challenges the rollback of the province’s sex-ed curriculum.

Zachary Green told a panel of three divisional court judges on Thursday that while teachers are expected to follow an interim curriculum and assess students based on those grade-level expectations, they are also not prevented from drawing on resources, including the 2015 sex-ed document, which was repealed this fall by Doug Ford’s government.

“In following the 2018 curriculum, teachers in fact have access to a wide range of resources,” Mr. Green told the court.

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His argument comes despite the Premier’s statements earlier this year in which he threatened to discipline educators who defied his government’s orders to use a 20-year-old sex-education curriculum, and launched a platform for parents to anonymously report concerns on what is being taught in classrooms. “Make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act," Mr. Ford said in a statement in August.

The Ontario government directed school boards in August to scrap a 2015 sex-ed curriculum for Grades 1 to 8, developed by the previous Liberal government and containing references to same-sex families and consent. The government replaced it with a previous health and physical-education curriculum which includes a 1998 document on sexual health.

In a two-day hearing this week, the court heard two separate legal challenges to the rollback of the curriculum.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) said the government restricted teachers’ freedom of expression by creating a chilling effect among educators with threats of disciplinary action.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said the government is discriminating against same-sex parents and their children and violating their constitutional right to equality by erasing references to sexual orientation, gender identity and same-sex relations from the curriculum expectations.

The government has said that it plans to release a new curriculum for the next school year starting in September. In the interim curriculum, gender identity is mentioned in the introduction and the glossary, but is not among the grade-by-grade learning expectations for elementary students. Consent and sexting are no longer discussed in Grade 7, and the curriculum doesn’t include topics of gender identity and sexual orientation in Grade 3. The 2015 curriculum addressed all these topics.

Mr. Green was asked by the panel of judges if teachers could discuss issues contained in the 2015 document, including consent, in the classroom. He said that, while teachers are guided by curriculum expectations, they would also be free to use a variety of resources at their discretion in lesson plans and could discuss consent.

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However, “it’s not a blank cheque,” he said, adding that teachers would have to be use appropriate professional judgment.

Outside the courtroom, ETFO president Sam Hammond said he was surprised to hear the government’s position on using the 2015 curriculum as a resource.

“I’m very … pleased to hear that. But I’m absolutely surprised to hear it,” Mr. Hammond said. “It’s the first time since this whole debate began that the government or a representative of the government has in fact said yes, teachers may use the 2015 curriculum as a resource in implementing the current curriculum.”

He said that if the government had told teachers that they were free to use their professional judgment and the 2015 curriculum as a resource in implementing the current curriculum, “we wouldn’t be here today, quite frankly.” Instead, Mr. Hammond said the government chose to publicly threaten teachers.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government has released “pretty confusing and conflicting” communication on what the expectations are of educators teaching the sex-ed curriculum. “Today was just another indication of this ongoing chaos and confusion that they have created,” she said outside the courtroom.

Some parents and groups, especially social conservatives, had labelled the 2015 curriculum age-inappropriate for young children, zeroing in on its lessons on gender identity and same-sex marriage.

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Tanya Granic Allen, who ran for the provincial Progressive Conservative Party leadership against Mr. Ford and who has been a vocal opponent of the 2015 sex-ed curriculum, said the government has failed in its promise to repeal the curriculum if it can still be taught and used as a resource.

“Whatever the judges decide in today’s case, this week’s legal proceedings have shed more light on what is shaping up to be the betrayal by [Education Minister Lisa] Thompson, of one of Doug Ford’s key campaign commitments,” Ms. Granic Allen, who heads the group Parents As First Educators, said in a e-mailed statement.

The sex-ed component of the wider health and physical-education curriculum is usually taught in the spring.

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