Shortly after taking office over the summer, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government announced its decision to repeal the 2015 Health and Physical Education curriculum, replacing it with the previous 1998 curriculum, which was taught until 2014.
During his campaign, Ford had accused the previous Liberal government of creating a curriculum that reflects an “ideology” that turned schools into “social laboratories” and children into “test subjects.” Ford’s politicization of the sex ed curriculum as a central campaign issue panders to a vocal minority of social conservatives who have opposed the update since its inception in 2015.
However, the 2015 curriculum is a huge step toward helping all students navigate social norms in the twenty-first century. The repeal of this curriculum brings us backward by two decades: gay marriage was still seven years away from legalization in Canada, consent meant the absence of a ‘no’ rather than the presence of an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ and social media as we know it had yet to come into existence.
For U of T and other university students, many of the critical issues on campus reflect the sex ed battleground. For instance, the gender pronouns controversy in 2016 and the C grade assigned by Our Turn to U of T’s recent sexual violence policy demonstrate a systemic inability to sufficiently normalize sexual and gender diversity and consent among youth.
The Progressive Conservative government’s position does not reflect the best interests of youth — who themselves could not vote in the election. Youth, as future postsecondary students, workers, and members of society, stand to lose the ability to make informed, safe, and healthy decisions on campuses, in workplaces, and beyond.
Sexuality, gender, and consent
Unlike the 2015 curriculum, the 1998 curriculum makes no mention of different sexual orientations or gender identities. In the 2015 curriculum, Grade 3 students learn about same-sex relationships, Grade 6 students discuss assumed gender roles and the issue of homophobia, and Grade 8 students develop an understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Those opposed to the 2015 curriculum have claimed that elements of it, such as discussions about same-sex relationships, are not age-appropriate. The notion that same-sex relationships are less appropriate than the heterosexual ones discussed in the 1998 curriculum is, quite simply, homophobic.
All students should have the opportunity to learn information that may help them to improve their understanding of themselves and of others. Instead, the government’s move eliminates resources and support for students trying to figure out their sexuality or gender identity.
The 2015 curriculum also made strides toward helping LGBTQ+ youth feel both accepted and included. Although Canadian society has become more accepting of people who identify as LGBTQ+, LGBTQ+ students are still the targets of bullying and violence.
For this reason, learning to accept and respect these differences at a young age is crucial. Raising a generation of Ontarians who are more accepting has the potential to be lifesaving, since bullying contributes to the higher-than-average suicide rates among LGBTQ+ identifying people.
Like LGBTQ+ issues, consent also goes unmentioned in the 1998 curriculum. The 2015 curriculum, on the other hand, has students as early as Grade 2 learning that they have the right to say ‘no’ to activities with which they are uncomfortable. In Grade 8, students develop the understanding that consent is not automatically implied just because someone has agreed to other romantic behaviours in the past.
These lessons are necessary because they can help to prevent sexual abuse and because many adults still do not fully understand what constitutes consent. According to research conducted by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, less than a third of Canadians fully understand consent: that it must be both positive — there must be clear indications that sexual activity is desired — and continuous — it must continue throughout the sexual encounter and can be revoked at any time.
Beyond sex: the digital world and comprehensive education
Opponents of the 2015 curriculum also overlook the fact that it teaches about topics beyond sex, including internet usage, bullying, body image, and mental and emotional health. Lessons about internet and technology safety are absent from the 1998 curriculum because many of today’s technologies did not exist at the time.
According to the 2015 curriculum, students in Grade 4 learn about cyberbullying, and how to retain privacy and vigilance when using the internet. In Grade 7, students are educated on the dangers of sexting. The understanding of these digital matters is crucial to society in 2018, and reverting back to a lesson plan created before grade school students were born places them at risk of not being able to adapt to the digital world.
Some opponents to the 2015 curriculum believe parents should be responsible for teaching their children sex ed. However, just because parents can teach their kids themselves does not mean they will, or that they will do so adequately. This leaves young people dealing with complex matters, such as sexual orientation and gender identity, without support.
Students will face many of the topics that have now been excluded from the curriculum, whether they are taught in class or not. They can easily access information whether from friends or the internet. Including these topics in a formal school setting provides a comprehensive and open way to learn and helps limit the misinformation and shame often attached to them.
Moving forward in September
Following fierce backlash from parents, community members, educators, and opposing political parties, the Ford administration appeared to be backpedaling. On July 16, Education Minister Lisa Thompson said gender, same-sex relationships, and internet safety would still be taught in the fall, despite not being included in the 1998 curriculum. She also said that educators would be returning to what was taught in 2014.
However, the curriculum used in 2014 was still the 1998 curriculum. As Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser points out, there is no third curriculum, different from either the 1998 or 2015 curricula, which includes these topics.
To muddy the waters further, teachers, as of the beginning of August, do not have access to the 1998 curriculum to organize their lesson plans for the upcoming school year, which is only weeks away. As of press time, the Ministry of Education’s website still features the 2015 curriculum. Furthermore, the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association has not been given any instruction on how to proceed in the fall.
Typically, when switching curriculums, training and resources are offered to teachers so they can be better prepared to teach new material. This has not occurred. Teachers need to know what they will be legally required to teach come September, especially since newer teachers may be unfamiliar with the 1998 curriculum entirely.
This uncertainty demonstrates how the Progressive Conservative government is irresponsibly reversing a policy through an irresponsible process. Come September, a number of teachers do plan to supplement the topics outlined in the 1998 curriculum by continuing to teach their students about LGBTQ+ issues, consent, internet safety, and other contemporary issues. Nearly 30 school boards have released statements expressing such intent, while one board is refusing to teach the 1998 curriculum entirely.
While expressing concern about the government’s decision to repeal the 2015 curriculum, the President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Sam Hammond, said that he would support any teachers who choose to teach beyond the 1998 curriculum. However, since the teaching of social issues will no longer be a standardized requirement, some students will lose out.
The need for accountability and inclusion
The government has indicated that the 1998 curriculum will be taught until province-wide consultations lead to a new curriculum in the 2019–2020 year. The government claims there had not been enough consultation with parents during the development of the 2015 curriculum.
However, the curriculum underwent almost a decade of consultation, which, according to Fraser, included discussions with 2,700 teachers, 4,000 parents, and 700 students. Hammond described it as the “largest, most extensive consultation process” for curriculum development in Ontario.
The Progressive Conservative government has provided no details as to what topics they wish to include in the 2019–2020 curriculum. Premier Doug Ford has promised consultations that would involve discussions with parents in all 124 ridings.
Students must hold the social conservative pushback on education policy to account, lest regressive reforms to elementary and high school settings become the prelude to dangerous policy changes on university campuses — for instance, Ford’s campaign vow to make university funding conditional to ‘free speech.’ Students and teachers should continue to advocate for the 2015 curriculum, both in policy and practice.
When it comes to Ford’s consultation process, students must demand that the government be inclusive of all genders, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds so that the curriculum adequately addresses the needs of all students and is representative of all Ontarians. The Progressive Conservatives claim to be “for the people.” It’s time for them to prove that they are for the children, too.
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