How does a liberal society cope with immigrants who don't share its values? It is an issue that Western cities from Paris to Copenhagen to London are confronting. Toronto is no exception. Despite its success at absorbing hundreds of thousands of newcomers – an achievement admired around the world – this city is not immune to the tensions that can come when a largely secular society takes in throngs of people with strong religious or cultural beliefs.
Look at what is happening in Thorncliffe Park. The high-rise enclave on the edge of the Don Valley is a magnet for new immigrants, many of them socially conservative Muslims from South Asia and the Middle East. This week, parents there staged a strike against the province's new sex education curriculum, pulling hundreds of schoolchildren out of class to protest. They say their kids will learn too much, too soon. They say mothers and fathers, not educators, should decide what kids learn about sex and when they learn it. They say a lot more, too.
At the makeshift alternative school they set up in a local park, you hear a ragbag of conspiracy theories, unfounded claims and simple prejudice.
A mother of four, a Palestinian by origin, says that when kids learn about sex in school they end up "behind the school making babies." A father of South Asian background says that Premier Kathleen Wynne, who happens to represent the riding and happens to be a lesbian, is using the schools to press her lifestyle on young children.
A guy from Guyana who sits on the parent council of a local school says that, instead of teaching that "it's okay for a boy to be with a boy and a girl to be with a girl," the schools should be teaching kids to suppress homosexual urges. Whether it is "a bullying problem, a drug problem, a smoking problem or a homosexuality problem," he says, the schools should be preventing it, not promoting it.
School officials have responded to the parent protest with carefully chosen words. The local trustee says the school board will teach sex ed with "tremendous sensitivity" and "in a way that will bring comfort to everyone."
But there is a limit to what the board can, or should, do to bend to parent concerns. Sex ed has been taught in Ontario schools for half a century. Education officials are simply updating the curriculum, which will now deal with current issues like the perils of sharing sexual content through social media.
Society has a strong interest in good sex ed. It is important for children not only to know the basics of human sexual biology and behaviour but to understand such things as the meaning of consent and how to avoid sexual diseases. Even if their parents don't approve of homosexuality, children should know that it exists and that, in Canada, it's okay. The right to same-sex marriage has been the law of the land for a decade.
In Canada, certain things are a given. Men and women are considered equal. Bigotry, against gays and lesbians or any other group, is not acceptable. And, oh yes, sex ed is taught in the schools.
Parents have the right to take their kids out of public school to avoid it and opt for home school or private schooling instead (although that would be unfortunate given the great job schools do helping immigrant kids integrate into their new communities). But to water down sex ed in any way to accommodate old and often backward ways of thinking about sex and sex roles would be a terrible mistake.
Canada doesn't expect immigrants to accept everything about their new country. We don't expect them to abandon all their values and beliefs, much less their religious principles. This isn't France, where the state bans head scarves in school in the name of official secularism.
But we do expect something. An unofficial bargain is in effect. We accept your right to be who you are. You accept that you are in a new place with certain core values that are not going to change. Even in Toronto, accommodation has its limits.
My guess is that most people in Thorncliffe Park understand that. They have come by choice to seek a better life. They know they are living in a Western society with different ways of thinking. Thorncliffe Park is not an angry, alienated place like the banlieues of Paris. The debate over sex ed has been sharp but respectful. The worst flareup has been the spray-painting of a couple of local schools with a protest slogan: "Shame on you."
Those apartment towers are full of striving people on a mission to make a better life for themselves and, more important, for their children. One mother at the sex-ed protest, a Yemeni recently arrived from Saudi Arabia, says that what bugs her most about the local school is the lax instruction her Grade 4 daughter is getting in math and science. Ambition, not grievance, is what really drives Thorncliffe Park.