Ontario’s long-running debate about sex education re-intensified this week when the Ford government announced it is cancelling the province’s controversial 2015 curriculum and replacing it with one from 1998 that is unquestionably out of date.
Scrapping the 2015 curriculum was one of Doug Ford’s few concise election promises, one that suited the simplistic sloganeering that characterized his startling rise from political afterthought to Progressive Conservative leadership candidate to Premier.
It was not a promise steeped in any sort of thoughtful consideration, or in the Premier’s understanding of the issue. He simply adopted the argument, made by religious groups and socially conservative family organizations, that parents hadn’t been properly consulted about the new curriculum.
In doing so, he ignored the fact that the Liberal government that developed the 2015 version of the curriculum had consulted teachers, experts and 4,000 parents of elementary school-aged children.
He also ignored the fact that the campaign against the new curriculum – a campaign that actually began in 2010 when the updated curriculum was first introduced, and then quickly withdrawn, by the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty – was filled with malice and misinformation so virulent that a Russian troll farm would have been impressed.
Opponents shamelessly claimed the curriculum was designed to “groom” children for pedophiles, and that it was the work of a “lesbian-activist,” a reference to Kathleen Wynne, the former premier who was education minister from 2006 to 2010, and who brought the curriculum back in 2015.
Opponents also said it encouraged children to masturbate, confused them into questioning their gender identity and “normalized” homosexuality. They said the mere presence of the words “anal sex” was evidence of a “gay agenda.”
None of these things was remotely true. The 2015 sex-ed curriculum for students in Grades 1 to 8 was, in fact, a neutral and timely document.
As a small part of a much larger curriculum on health and physical education, it gave elementary and middle-school students sound introductions to numerous issues: sexual abuse and sexually transmitted diseases; managing their time on the internet; the dangers of sugary sodas and physical inactivity, and much more.
In its approach to sexuality, it slowly introduced children to the inevitable facts of life, which today include a greater openness to sexual diversity. Children were made aware in neutral terms that sexual orientation was one of a number of ways another person might be different from them.
It also armed children with information designed to help protect them from sexual predation. And it addressed realities such as cyberbullying, sexting and internet privacy.
None of this will be taught this year in Ontario. Instead, students will learn from a curriculum that is clueless to the momentous changes in society that have occurred since 1998, most notably the arrival of gay marriage and the omnipresence of smartphones and social media.
The Ford government will, in the meantime, develop a new “age-appropriate” curriculum that is “based on real consultation with parents.” Education Minister Lisa Thompson said this week she will move quickly on the file but gave no deadline.
This is a huge victory for the organizations that opposed the new curriculum. But it is one, as we said, based on a deliberate misrepresentation of the content that skewed many people’s opinions of it.
And it is a hugely disproportionate victory. Polls have consistently shown that more Ontarians support the 2015 curriculum than oppose it. But now it is gone, erased from public schools with no timeline for bringing in a suitable replacement, and no thought given to the parents who were indeed consulted and saw the new curriculum as a necessary update to outdated teaching materials.
The Ford government should not have been so one-sided in this issue. Ms. Thompson should have found ways to preserve useful parts of the updated version until her promised consultation could be completed.
Instead, the government has made an already controversial issue even more divisive. Worse yet, a critical part of the education of Ontario schoolchildren will now be based on a world that is unrecognizable to them.