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Wynne dawdles on Ontario sex-ed curriculum

Still no progress three years after Liberals yanked new guidelines

In January, newly selected Premier Kathleen Wynne committed to updating Ontario's sexual education curriculum. Credit: Andrea Houston
More than three years after the Ontario Liberals announced, and then promptly shelved, an updated sexual health curriculum, little progress has been made to bring sexual education into the 21st century.

In April 2010, facing protests from religious conservatives, then-premier Dalton McGuinty promised a fresh round of consultations with parents on the curriculum update.

Those consultations never materialized.

In January, newly selected Premier Kathleen Wynne committed to moving the file forward. But since then, the Ministry of Education appears to be in a holding pattern, and consultations have not begun.

"The government remains committed to moving forward with the development of the Health and Physical Education curriculum. We will be consulting with parents and stakeholders to ensure the curriculum is current, relevant and age appropriate. Decisions around timelines have not been finalized,” Gary Wheeler, communications coordinator for the Ministry of Education, wrote in a statement to Xtra May 7.

That language is strikingly similar to the language used by McGuinty in 2010 and again by Wynne this January.The curriculum’s proponents are skittish about accepting assurances without firm dates and deadlines, since they’ve now been hearing the same message for three years.

"We waited out the prorogation, election of the Liberals’ new leader and the government settling its war with the teachers,” says Nick Mulé, chair of Queer Ontario. “This continues to be a concern for Queer Ontario."

Casey Oraa, who worked with Queer Ontario on this file in 2010, wrote to Education Minister Liz Sandals in April to ask about timelines for consultation.

"When I got my reply, I was just like, ‘Oh, it’s the same old lines,’” Oraa says. “The question is, how long will we have to wait?"

It’s now been 15 years since the Ontario government last rewrote guidelines for teaching young people about sexuality. The curriculum used today does not require teachers to include material about gay and lesbian sexuality.

When the update was first announced, parents, gay and lesbian activists, and education experts applauded the changes. The curriculum would have taught basic anatomy to younger children, respect and tolerance for diverse families, and gender identity. It would have explicitly included gay and lesbian sexuality in the sexual health program for teens.

"The new curriculum takes a more balanced approach to health,” says Chris Markham, executive director of OPHEA. “It equips students to deal with issues that they are facing today."

Many issues facing students today, like cyberbullying, have emerged only in the last decade. And in areas where medical understanding has evolved rapidly since the 1990s – for instance, with respect to HIV – the curriculum is simply no longer accurate.

"There is no overstating how out of date this curriculum is,” Markham says. “Educators who want to do a good job have to go out of province to find resources that aren’t out of date, and that’s embarrassing for me as an Ontarian."

If a new round of consultations is conducted, it may provide opportunities for integrating material from Ontario’s anti-bullying bill and Toby’s Act, which added gender identity and expression to the Ontario Human Rights Code, Oraa adds. Both bills have been adopted since the government shelved the sex-ed curriculum.

The Liberals appear to view sexual education as a controversial and politically sensitive subject. Back in 2010, MPP Glen Murray – a supporter of the proposed curriculum – pleaded with activists to wait until after the 2011 election for movement on the file.

Since then, the province has been in the grips of a volatile minority legislature. And in the months since Wynne became premier, Queen’s Park has been on a razor’s edge over the budget, which could plunge the province into another election.

But Oraa points out that both Wynne and Sandals were involved with, and supported, the development of the new curriculum. Now that Wynne is premier and Sandals is education minister, the inertia appears to be more tactical than ideological.

"It’s a political calculation, which is horrible. It’s like we’re political chits,” Oraa says. “I hope this sort of dance around the controversy will be over soon."