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opinion

Michael Adams is founder and president of the Environics Institute and author of Sex In the Snow: The Surprising Revolution In Canadian Social Values

Let's face it: Ontario's new sexual health education curriculum is not just a pragmatic adaptation to the Internet age. It is also a reflection of social change. Even a simple development like naming body parts without shame is a sign of a society less constrained by the taboos imposed by traditional, religious, often patriarchal mores. And of course, an updated approach to sexual orientation reflects deep shifts in our laws and public attitudes.

Most Ontario parents with children in public schools support the new curriculum. In an Environics survey conducted in 2013, roughly nine in 10 (give or take three points, depending on the question) agreed that the curriculum needed updating, that sexual health should be part of health education, and that schools are a good place for kids to learn about sexual health. Most also supported all thirteen topic areas in the new curriculum – including contraception, sexual orientation, and media literacy.

But even very broad-based social change doesn't include everyone. As with other manifestations of social change – such as the banishment of overt racism from Canada's immigration policy and increased protections against gender discrimination – new official approaches to sexual health have their opponents. Often, those who wish to "stand athwart history yelling Stop" (in William F. Buckley's famous formulation) are fueled by religious conviction.

One measure of social change Environics has been tracking since 1983 is agreement with the statement: "The father of the family must be master in his own house." This classic expression of deference to patriarchal authority correlates with a number of traditional, religious, and conservative attitudes. Agreement with this statement declined steadily, from 42 per cent of Canadians in 1983 to roughly one in five in the late 1990s. Lately, however, agreement that dad must be boss has been holding steady in the low– to mid-20s. Part of the explanation for this trend is immigration: more than 250,000 people arrive each year, some from societies where patriarchal social values hold more sway than they do in Canada right now.

When we break down responses between the Canadian-born and the foreign-born, there's a significant difference: 22 per cent of the Canadian-born agree that Dad should be boss, while 36 per cent of the foreign-born agree. But there's more to the story. People born outside Canada who claim no religious affiliation are no more likely than the national average (26 per cent compared to 24 per cent) to say father must be master. It's religious people – both Canadian-born and foreign-born – who believe most strongly that father knows best.

Conservative Protestants (Baptists, Pentecostals, and others), who make up 12.1 per cent of the population, score highest: an average of 45 per cent across these denominations agree that pops should be tops.

The 14.5 per cent of Canadians who are mainline Protestants (Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and members of the United Church) are at the other end of the spectrum: at 17 per cent agreement, they are the least likely to believe in patriarchal authority, roughly tied with those claiming no religion (18 per cent). Catholics (39 per cent of Canadians) are not far off, at 21 per cent agreement.

If conservative Protestants and mainline Protestants mark the high and low ends of the patriarchy spectrum, non-Christians (8.8 per cent of Canadians) are in the middle. On average, 30 per cent of these Canadians believe father must be master. For Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Hindus, our sample is too small to analyze. Muslims, who now make up 3.2 per cent of the population, score high on deference to Dad (58 per cent) but they haven't cornered the market on patriarchy: Canadian-born Muslims are outscored slightly by foreign-born conservative Protestants.

For the time being, Canada and its progressive social mores – a willingness to question dad, religious leaders, and tradition; and a willingness to respect individuals' self-determination, sexual and otherwise – enjoy the assent of the majority. This majority includes the non-religious, members of mainline Christian denominations, substantial proportions of non-Christian religious groups, and even progressive members of more conservative religious groups (Christian and non-Christian).

The minority who feel stronger attachment to traditional authority will make their distress about this mainstream permissiveness known, as they have in Ontario. Whether their children will be persuaded by their parents or by the wider culture remains to be seen – but if trends in my generation of Catholics and in past waves of second-generation immigrants are any indication, most of those kids will give Dad a hug and then go their own way. Still, the year 2050 will likely find at least some of them marching in front of some legislature, protesting against the latest assault on religious patriarchy.