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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty participates in Earth Day events at the Tecumseh Public School in London, Ont., yesterday.NATHAN DENETTE

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty acted unilaterally in pulling the plug on his government's new sex-education curriculum after he was blindsided by his own bureaucrats and a backlash from parents and religious groups.

Mr. McGuinty announced on Thursday that he will not roll out the new curriculum next fall. It was his fastest policy retreat in recent memory, coming just four hours after cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello vigorously defended the document during Question Period.

Sources said that the Premier had not been briefed on the curriculum and was unaware of its contents until the complaints began this week.

The new curriculum needs a "serious rethink," Mr. McGuinty said, and government officials must listen to parents on such a highly sensitive topic that touches children directly.

"For most parents, it came out of nowhere," Mr. McGuinty said. "They are obviously not comfortable with the proposal we put forward."

The political time-bomb that was his government's new sex-education curriculum ticked away on-line for three months until a Christian group led by evangelist Charles McVety issued a statement this week threatening to pull its children from school if the government did not abandon it.

Bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education did not brief the Premier about the new curriculum, according to senior government sources. While he is not usually given details of curriculum changes, such a politically sensitive topic as sex education should have been brought to his attention, one of the sources said.

"I think there was a little bit of a failure in the system," he said.

With parents inundating government MPPs and opposition members with complaints, Mr. McGuinty decided to admit that his government got it wrong, said one of the sources.

Alex McKay, research co-ordinator for the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, said he was "disappointed" that the province bowed to loud critics who misrepresented what was actually going to be taught in Ontario classrooms.

"I think if people examine the curriculum closely, they will find it far less controversial than the highly charged discussion over the last few days suggested it was," he said.

Consultation on the new curriculum began in 2007, when Kathleen Wynne was education minister. The Institute for Catholic Education, which works with the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops in tailoring the ministry's curriculum for observant classrooms, was involved throughout that consultation.

"We had an agreement right from the beginning that we would be aligning their expectations with the Fully Alive family life program," said Sister Joan Cronin, executive director of ICE, referring to a 20-year-old church-endorsed version of sex-health education.

A first draft was released near the end of 2008.

Ministry spokesperson Michelle Despault said bureaucrats knew the changes would be controversial and, as a result, they did more extensive consultations than usual.

By the time the document was posted on-line last Jan. 18, the day that Mr. McGuinty shuffled Ms. Wynne out of education and Leona Dombrowsky in, ministry staff had received more than 3,000 pieces of feedback from every stripe of education insider and from parents.

There the document sat, a near-philosophical twin to its predecessor, but adorned with progressive talking points that suggested teachers might refer to same-sex families in Grade 3, or to anal intercourse as a way to contract a sexually transmitted infection in Grade 7.

As late as Thursday afternoon, as protests from Catholic parent groups and at least one bishop derailed the 208-page document, Sister Cronin and her organization were aligning the Fully Alive program to the new curriculum.

Catherine Fife, vice-president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said boards are still open to delivering an enhanced and relevant sex-education curriculum after more discussion.

"I hope that it's not dropped altogether, because it's an important discussion for school boards to be having with parents and with children," Ms. Fife said.

With reports from André Picard and Caroline Alphonso

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