Skip to main content

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals speaks to the media on Feb. 11, 2013Peter Powe/The Globe and Mail

Ontario has unveiled its first update to the sexual-education curriculum since 1998, an effort to finally move sex ed into the digital age with discussions of sexting and the dangers of sharing intimate images online.

And Education Minister Liz Sandals is vowing not to cave to pressure from fringe religious groups that are pushing the government to shelve the new material.

At a Queen's Park news conference Monday, she said the curriculum is simply keeping pace with the realities of the modern era.

"Today, we live in a digital and interconnected world where information is literally at our fingertips around the clock. Students have instant access to quite explicit information from unreliable, inaccurate and often offensive sources," she said. "This is why it's so important to ensure that our children have the right information."

Starting in the fall, students in Grades 4 to 6 will learn about the risks of posting sexual images or information online, while children in Grade 7 will discuss sexting more specifically. The curriculum update also includes learning the proper names for body parts in Grade 1, teaching about sexual orientation in Grade 3, how to combat homophobia and other forms of discrimination in Grade 6 and more extensive discussions on gender identity in Grade 8.

The curriculum has been delayed for five years. In 2010, then-premier Dalton McGuinty gave in to religious fundamentalists and cancelled an update to the curriculum. Ms. Sandals promised that will not happen again, saying she was "disappointed" by Mr. McGuinty's climbdown.

"I was disappointed that [the curriculum update] didn't happen. But you can rest assured that I will make sure it happens now," she said.

To avoid a repeat of the situation five years ago, the government made a public-relations push to promote the merits of the sex-ed changes. Ms. Sandals let people know months ahead of time that the curriculum was being worked on, and she dropped the occasional hint on what it would contain. When it was released Monday, she called a press conference to explain its contents and the government's rationale for the changes.

In 2010, by contrast, the curriculum was quietly posted on a government website and only came to public attention when evangelical minister Charles McVety and other religious radicals discovered it and whipped up a media frenzy.

A handful of groups are already rallying to oppose the curriculum again.

There is Mr. McVety's Institute for Canadian Values, which responded to the curriculum Monday with a statement that included a homophobic slur. Another opponent is the Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion group. A rally against the curriculum, planned for the lawn of Queen's Park Tuesday, is advertising former Toronto school trustee Sam Sotiropoulos as a speaker; Mr. Sotiropoulos landed in hot water last year for making transphobic remarks on Twitter.

Two Progressive Conservative leadership candidates, London-area MPP Monte McNaughton and federal Barrie MP Patrick Brown, are also scheduled to speak at the rally. Mr. McNaughton on Monday attacked the curriculum, but would not say what he specifically opposed about it.

"This government is disrespecting parents," he told reporters. "Parents are looking for a voice. I am going to be a voice in this debate."

The PC party hastily distanced itself from Mr. McNaughton's comments. Interim leader Jim Wilson said Mr. McNaughton is not representing the Tory caucus at the rally but merely going as an individual. In question period Monday, the Tories avoided the sex-ed file, using all their questions to instead press the Liberals on an alleged bribery scandal.

The Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association said the separate school system accepts the curriculum.

"We feel very confident that we can teach the provincial curriculum through our faith-based system and through our Catholic lens," association vice-president Bob Schreader said in an interview. "It's really important that we, as the minister pointed out this morning, give our children the information they need."

Education experts, meanwhile, cheered the government's move.

"It's certainly well overdue. The fact is that the curriculum in other provinces is so far ahead of us … this brings us in line with other provinces," said Chris Markham, executive director of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she had not had time yet to read the curriculum, but expressed tentative support.

"There's no doubt that the curriculum needed to be updated. In 2015, we shouldn't be operating with 1998 curriculum. That is something everyone would agree with," she said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe