Quebec has become the latest province to mandate that its primary and secondary school students be taught sex education – a topic that has been the subject of controversy in several parts of the country.
Education Minister Sébastien Proulx said on Thursday that students will be taught lessons that include sexuality, sexual assault and stereotypes, and that the topics would be age-appropriate. He acknowledged that some parents may be opposed, but said the instruction is necessary.
"I know it's not an easy subject, I know these questions are sensitive," he told reporters. "But we have to respond as a society to a societal issue."
The curriculum, which will be rolled out in the fall, comes in the wake of sexual-abuse accusations made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and others, and the #MeToo movement that followed on social media. Provinces, including Ontario and British Columbia, have in recent years initiated or made changes to their sexual health curricula to include consent, sexuality, gender expression and LGBTQ rights – a flashpoint, especially among religious fundamentalists.
In Quebec, the government said the sex education curriculum was developed in collaboration with sexologists and pedagogical experts, and will be taught for five to 15 hours per school grade. Teachers will receive training, tools to use in the classroom and supports from professionals, the government said.
But the head of one teachers' federation was concerned with the speed at which the curriculum was being rushed into schools, and whether it was being done just so the government could say it acted swiftly in light of current news events.
The government has been piloting courses in sex education for two years, but it was voluntary and limited, said Sébastien Joly, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers.
Mr. Joly questioned whether it was necessary to teach sex education at every grade, and how teachers would find the time to do so in an already packed school day.
He said he remembered teaching sex education years back in Quebec when it included lessons on preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Not all teachers were comfortable discussing it with their students, he said, and he worried that would be the case again with a new curriculum that broadens lessons to include sexuality and sexual harassment. Even though the government has promised teacher training, Mr. Joly expressed concern that there wasn't enough time before next fall.
"We're not opposed to it, but we're opposed to the manner in which it's being done," he said in an interview. "We always stated to the Ministry [that] for any introduction of new content of curriculum within the system, it would take time to do things properly and to organize things."
Mr. Proulx told reporters that there would be a mechanism for students to be exempted from sex education lessons, but it would be granted only in exceptional cases. He used the example of a child who was a victim of sexual abuse. "I understand that in a context of vulnerability like that it might be better if the child is not exposed to that kind of material with others in a class," he said.
Sex education lessons have caused a stir in many parts of the country.
In 2010, former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty gave in to pressure from religious fundamentalists and cancelled an update to the health and physical education curriculum that would have included teaching on same-sex relationships and sexuality. The Ontario sex-ed curriculum was released two years ago under current Premier Kathleen Wynne. The education minister at the time, Liz Sandals, vowed not to bend to pressure from fringe religious groups. Some parents pulled their children out of public schools, but many have since returned.
In British Columbia, teachers may explore the various sections of the human rights code, including sexual orientation and gender identity, under a revised curriculum being rolled out in schools. Lessons on family diversity, for example, may include mentions of same-sex families and LGBTQ rights. Places such as Abbotsford and Langley have become battlegrounds for supporters of an inclusive school environment and a small, but vocal group of counterprotesters that label LGBTQ-friendly curriculum policies as a "sex activists agenda" that "abuses" children.
Chris Markham, executive director of Ophea, a not-for-profit organization that pushed the Ontario government to update its curriculum, commended Quebec on introducing sex education in schools, adding that topics such as consent are vital.
"Part of school education is health education and the concepts of well being and wellness," Mr. Markham said. "It's such an important conversation to be having in today's world."
With a report from Les Perreaux in Montreal