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Coalition calls on Ontario government to update sex ed

Teachers say province's curriculum is now most out-of-date in Canada

From left, Chris Markham, executive director of Ophea, Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, Lori Lukinuk, trustee with Lakehead District School Board, and Kourosh Houshmand, student trustee. Credit: Andrea Houston

A coalition of more than 50 Ontario education and health advocates is demanding that the government finalize and implement a revised sex-education curriculum to replace lessons that are now 15 years old.

The government shelved the Health and Physical Education curriculum, which includes sexual health, three years ago following complaints from religious parents and groups. It is now collecting dust at the Ministry of Education, said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, at a news conference at Queen’s Park on June 3.

Kidder said the initial protests came from a very small, vocal group with a conservative political agenda.

“I think everyone was very surprised when [the curriculum] was removed in the first place,” she says. “It’s definitely time for this to happen. I understand it will be difficult. Objections will be raised. But the vast majority of parents want their kids to have the best curriculum they can have.”

A new Environics Research Group poll indicates that 93 percent of parents want the updated curriculum back on the table. It is one of three new reports from the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (Ophea). Another report, which compares sexual health education in schools across Canada, shows that the 2010 curriculum revisions in Ontario are comparable to similar updates in other provinces.

Chris Markham, executive director of Ophea, says Ontario’s curriculum is the oldest in the country and makes no mention of gay and lesbian sexuality. He hopes the reports give the government a much-needed push to action.

“Putting this into context, this curriculum predates the iPod, it predates the PlayStation, and it predates the camera phone,” says Kourosh Houshmand, vice-president of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association. “Students have a fundamental right to up-to-date information about sexual health . . . We have a right to learn about our own body.”

The list of advocates for an updated curriculum includes two Catholic boards. Darryll Hancock, curriculum chair at St Mary’s Catholic Secondary School in Cobourg, which is part of the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board, says educators in publicly funded Catholic schools support the curriculum and were involved in the original review process.

“The pushback came from some very conservative Christian groups, outside of publicly funded Catholic educators,” he says.

(After speaking to Xtra, Hancock called back to ask that his name be removed from the story. He said he had spoken “too frankly” and feared how the story “will be spun.” Xtra has denied this request because Hancock’s name appears on a public list of supporters who agreed to speak to media in support of the curriculum.)

Hancock expressed strong support for the curriculum update. “Who would have heard of the term ‘sexting’ 15 years ago? Things have changed,” he says. “The curriculum needs to address the evolving technologies, sexual health and mental health.”

At her first news conference in January, newly elected Premier Kathleen Wynne once again committed to moving the file forward.

However, last month Education Minister Liz Sandals told Xtra that bringing back the curriculum is not a top priority. “To be perfectly honest with you, the top of my pile has been labour-relations issues, which we are still working on, and ensuring we have peace in the [education] land. But [sex ed] is absolutely on my radar.”

Kidder says that while labour relations are important, the Ministry of Education must have the ability and resources to tackle more than one issue at the same time. “It’s important to remember the curriculum already exists,” she says. “No one is asking anyone to go back and write a new curriculum. It is a thoroughly developed curriculum that is written and sitting on a shelf.”

Houshmand feels the government is using labour relations as an excuse to stall the process. “The labour disputes are a big hurdle, but we shouldn’t be compromising improvement and advancement in education by blaming it on barriers.”

But Hancock says the real reason for the three-year delay is because the issue is still a political hot potato for the government. He says the backlash in 2010 mostly came from fundamentalist Christian groups – many that have no connection to education – which politicized the curriculum by spreading inaccurate information to parents, particularly surrounding gay and lesbian families and sexuality.

Some even believed that schools would be “promoting” homosexuality by teaching about gay families, he says.

By now, Hancock says, most people understand that being gay is not something that can be “taught” or “promoted” by teachers in schools. “[But] I think the strongest backlash comes from an element that doesn’t agree with that. And I don’t think that is necessarily coming from Catholic education. The strongest opposition is coming from some really powerful conservative Christian groups.”

That conservative lobby is very politically influential, he says. “They have enough influence that in a minority government, [the Liberals] haven’t felt as though they are able to move forward in fear of backlash . . . There’s a perception that moving forward will cost votes. That’s certainly the message that we hear back.”

But teachers like Andrea Haefele, an elementary-level health and physical education teacher in the York Region District School Board, says the government must be bold and take that political risk because it’s in the best interest of students.

Haefele says it’s more important for students to have information, such as understanding the correct name for body parts and learning how to prevent sexually transmitted infections. In addition, she wants the province to mandate discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

“When these topics come up in class by the students, I feel I don’t have the tools in the curriculum to help me answer those questions appropriately,” she says. “We have students that come from different family structures: single-parent families, gay parents. We need to show them that that’s okay. They are families, too.”

Kidder agrees, noting that it’s irresponsible of the government to put politics ahead of students. “The loudest voices that have objected to this also don’t believe in evolution, so we have to be careful about who we go to as authorities [to comment] on what is wrong with the curriculum.”