A lot has changed since 1998. Internet culture has exploded, gay marriage has become legal and the #MeToo movement has taken Hollywood by storm. But one thing that hasn’t changed with the times is the Ontario PC’s sex-ed curriculum.
One of the Ford government’s first moves upon entering office in summer 2018 was to repeal the Liberal government's updated health and physical education curriculum. This was met with immediate backlash from groups such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, who challenged the rollback of the sexual education curriculum in court, stating that it was in violation of Canadian Charter rights. However, these charges were ultimately dismissed in a hearing on Feb. 28.
While the Progressive Conservatives work on developing their own sex-ed curriculum, which is set to be released in September, the curriculum from 1998 has been reinstated. This curriculum is 21 years out of date and does not cover issues relating to consent, internet safety or the LGBTQ2+ community — all of which are highly present in the lives of children today.
The removal of the Liberal’s curriculum was perhaps most damaging to the LGBTQ2+ community, whose representation in classrooms was removed with the repeal. Our education system can’t pretend that ignoring the LGBTQ2+ community will prevent children from being introduced to it. The community has been gaining representation in popular culture, including in children’s media, such as on the Disney channel, which introduced their first openly gay character last month. It’s important for children to have a safe space to learn about the LGBTQ2+ community, ask questions and help them safely explore their own identities.
Even today, there is widespread gender and sexuality-based discrimination — not addressing these issues in classrooms makes the stigma surrounding the LGBTQ2+ community worse. LGBTQ2+ youth are three times more likely to be bullied and four times more likely to contemplate suicide than their heterosexual, cisgender peers. Ontario schools promote tolerance and diversity, but these values need to be reflected in the curriculum. Having adults address and normalize the LGBTQ2+ community in classrooms will let children know that it’s OK to identify as queer.
Despite the negative impact on the LGBTQ2+ community, the Feb. 28 ruling does appear to have a silver lining. The ruling clarifies that teachers have the freedom to teach material not included in the current curriculum, including material from the repealed Liberal curriculum. While this may seem obvious, it goes against the PCs so-called “snitch line” system, where parents could call to report a teacher for covering sex-ed material outside of the curriculum and have them reprimanded by the government.
Although this allowance is reassuring for educators, the point of having a standardized curriculum is to ensure all students are equipped with the knowledge they need to succeed. Allowing individual teachers to decide whether or not their class gets to learn from updated sources seems unproductive.
One would hope this would be resolved with the PCs' incoming updated curriculum, but that seems unlikely. Ford’s government has given themselves a little over 14 months to develop their new curriculum, a process that took the Liberals over five years to complete. Additionally, while the Liberal curriculum consulted both parents and professionals in areas such as education, sexual health and mental well-being, it appears that, with less than six months until their deadline, the PCs haven’t done much more than consult with parents.
This isn’t to say parents shouldn’t have a voice in their children’s education, but rather that they shouldn’t be the guiding force behind the development of curriculums. Parents always have the option to withdraw their children from sex-ed class if they’re uncomfortable with the curriculum, but they shouldn’t have the power to stop other children from learning. Curriculums should be guided by experts who know what information is going to be necessary for children to succeed and lead healthy lives. This information will often be different from what children’s parents may have learned in school, because the world has and will continue to change — and our curriculums must reflect that.