Sexual education in public schools has been the site of much drama for Doug Ford and his caucus. The Ontario Premier spent a good deal of time during last year’s election criticizing the curriculum introduced by his Liberal predecessors in 2015, including incorrect claims that parents hadn’t been consulted about whether students should learn about things such as same-sex marriage and consent.
Mr. Ford vowed to scrap the curriculum if elected: While his government developed a new one, kids would be stuck with information from 1998. Teachers pointed out the many flaws in that plan – 20 years ago, young people didn’t have devices in their pockets that allowed them to distribute naked images at lightning speed – and vowed to use the newer lessons anyway.
The flare-ups were endless – next, Mr. Ford threatened to punish teachers who didn’t go back in time. Then, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario took his government to court, claiming their freedom of expression was being violated. There, Ontario’s own lawyers said teachers were allowed to go beyond the curriculum if they chose.
And so, the divisional court ruled that the government’s interim lesson plans – which eliminated mention of sexual orientation, gender identity and consent – could stand, since teachers were able to ignore them anyway.
What a mess, and seemingly for nothing: On Wednesday, the Ministry of Education unveiled a curriculum almost identical to what Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government rolled out four years ago. Sexual orientation is a topic in Grade 5. Gender identity and expression are tackled in Grade 8, two years later than the 2015 curriculum, but still there. Consent, sexting, the proper names for genitalia – it’s all on the list.
At this point, backtracking and flip-flops by Ontario’s provincial government are hardly a surprise. As with funding for autistic children, developing the Greenbelt or scrapping the French language commissioner, public outcry has once again forced the Progressive Conservative government to reconsider its plans.
But while this is a win for those – like myself – who believe that modern sex ed will help keep children healthy and safe, it’s a tenuous victory. These backtracks are often just slowdowns: This week, the PCs went forward with plans to cut municipal public health and child-care programs, slashing that was put on hold after a bout of public indignation just a few months back.
After all, it’s unlikely that the vocal minority who object to modern sex ed will be happy with today’s announcement. Education Minister Stephen Lecce told The Globe and Mail that parents will be able to opt out of any section they object to, and that he’ll make that process easier than it was under Ms. Wynne. If that’s not satisfying for those who want to put blinders on their children about the lives of gay and transgender people, Mr. Ford may try to flip-flop again.
And again, it won’t be the only file on which the PCs are sending out contradictory messages – in May, they announced a task force on improving rural areas’ resilience to flooding. But this week, the government suggested cuts may be coming to Conservation Ontario, a provincial agency whose mandate includes doing just that. Such budget tightening supposedly comes out of respect for public funds, but all this going in circles is a much bigger waste of money, and time.
So when school starts in September, Ontario children will be introduced to the idea of staying safe online in kindergarten. Consent education starts in Grade 1. Abstinence is on the agenda in Grade 7, but so are contraception and sexually transmitted infections. All of these are important lessons, and hopefully they’ll stay on the curriculum for good.
But who knows? To be an Ontarian today is to live in a state of confusion, not sure exactly what the government’s stand is on any given issue, and when its commitment might suddenly be revoked. If you appreciate a modern curriculum, enjoy this moment. Don’t be surprised, though, if the time comes to defend it again.
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