The executive director of an education advocacy group is calling on Ontario’s Ministry of Education to begin consultations to reintroduce an updated sexual health curriculum in the fall.
“It is students’ right to have a curriculum that is current and research-based. Having that curriculum sitting on the shelf is an act of negligence,” says Chris Markham, executive director of Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (Ophea), who is hosting a news conference at Queen’s Park at 12:30pm on June 3.
Ophea’s latest reports on sexual health education in schools across Canada highlight the disturbing health trends facing Ontario’s children and youth. The reports show that the 2010 curriculum revisions are comparable to similar updates in other provinces.
“Ontario’s health curriculum is the oldest in all of Canada,” Markham says. “Students are being left to fill in the gaps on their own.”
It’s been 15 years since the Ontario government last updated guidelines for teaching young people about sexual health. The curriculum used today does not require teachers to include material about gay and lesbian sexuality.
In 2010, the Ontario Liberals announced the updated sexual health curriculum but promptly shelved it after religious groups expressed outrage. Then-premier Dalton McGuinty promised to conduct further consultations with parents that never materialized.
“There are some significant health risks facing Ontario kids today, and the curriculum is one of the province’s really important tools to address some of those health risks,” Markham says.
Ophea is also releasing a parent opinion poll that suggests there is broad support for the government of Ontario to move forward and release the curriculum.
The survey shows that 93 percent of parents want the update to return. Conducted by Environics Research Group on behalf of Ophea, just over 1,000 parents were polled over a two-week period. It also shows that nine out of 10 parents are comfortable with their children receiving information about sexual health from a school curriculum.
“It’s going to be very difficult for the government to look at those findings and not do anything,” Markham says. “I think the response that we are looking for from government is for them to lay out a clear plan and make a commitment to releasing this curriculum by fall 2013.”
Education Minister Liz Sandals would not provide Xtra with a firm date for when parent consultations will begin. Bringing back the curriculum is simply not a top priority, she says.
“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,” she says. “But [sex ed] is absolutely on my radar.”
Sandals says Ontario parents will likely be waiting for another year at least.
“There have been more immediate things that I have to sort out,” she says. “Labour relations is an urgent issue that we need to sort out legislatively over the next six months.”
But Markham says that is not good enough. He says Ontario students are demanding that their government start consultations immediately.
“Students have a right to know when those consultations are going to happen,” he says. “Sexual health education, as part of an overall health education, is a fundamental right of students in the province of Ontario.”
Ophea has the support of 50 other organizations, including Brock University, the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, Queen’s University, Sick Kids Hospital, Queer Ontario and the University of Toronto.
The list of supporters even includes one Catholic school, Pope John Paul II Senior Elementary School in Thunder Bay, the school’s vice-principal says.
“There is overwhelming support to update this curriculum,” he says.
Much has changed since 2010, and Markham says he doesn’t anticipate that there will be the same pushback from religious groups and Catholic boards.
“The parents of children in Ontario’s publicly funded schools, 93 percent of them, are calling on the government of Ontario to update this curriculum,” he says. “That includes public and separate school systems . . . I don’t think we will see the same type of issues that we saw back in 2010. I think the context has changed.”
Last June, Ontario passed the Accepting Schools Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that guarantees that students can form supportive groups, called gay-straight alliances (GSA), or whatever name students choose. Previously, GSAs were banned at all Ontario Catholic schools.
Markham says the government now needs to catch up to students, parents and progressive educators.
“We now have a critical mass of provincial policies that teach students respect for diversity and respect for others and appreciating differences and inclusion,” he says.
At the Toronto Catholic District School Board, trustee John Del Grande supported a recent motion to ban GSAs at all Toronto Catholic schools. The motion was defeated, but Del Grande warned that many Catholic trustees and parents in Ontario will continue to fight the government if it attempts to bring back the revised sex-ed curriculum.
And if that happens, Del Grande told Xtra he would consider a legal challenge.
“[Sex ed] doesn’t line up with Catholic teachings,” he says. “You have to remember, this is a Catholic school system, so anything that happens in a Catholic school system must go through a Catholic lens . . . There’s lots of curriculum materials that the government puts out that Catholic schools have the right to modify.”
In 2011, when asked about the curriculum, MPP Glen Murray told Xtra that MPPs in less progressive ridings have difficulty selling it to their constituents. “Rightwing reactionary homophobes just love these issues,” he said.
But Markham says the updated curriculum teaches more than just gay and lesbian sexuality. It presents to youth a diverse picture of families, reinforces self-esteem through positive body image, and teaches the accurate names for body parts, which prevents abuse and even suicide, he says.
“The danger here is that this becomes an issue around only sexual orientation,” Markham says. “That is only one component.”