Policy victories for students require more than single demonstrations

Examining the limitations of secondary student movements following the recent sex ed protests in Ontario high schools

Policy victories for students require more than single demonstrations

On September 21, 40,000 students from 100 Ontario schools walked out to challenge the decision of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government to scrap both the updated sex ed curriculum and Indigenous content in the curriculum.

This provokes important questions about how effective student activism is in terms of producing tangible impacts on education policy. It also highlights the significant challenges that secondary school activism faces due to a lack of advocacy structures to organize collective action.

Historically, student activism has had significant societal impact. Collective student action has led to significant changes to existing social structures. In the 1960s, student movements in the United States brought critical dialogues to the forefront and prompted university heads to resign, while in countries like Brazil, Czechoslovakia, and the more recent Arab Spring, students protested authoritarian regimes, often in the face of lethal violence, setting in motion paradigm shifts that eventually saw the regimes topple.

Even in Canada, tens of thousands of Québec students took to the streets in 2012 in response to proposed tuition hikes. Six years later, Québec tuition fees generally have remained low — about half that of the rest of Canada.

However, the caveat is that policy battles are not won in a single demonstration. Advocacy campaigns require resources, organization, and, perhaps most importantly, time. Many students have school, work, extracurricular, and personal commitments that prevent them from investing weeks, months, or years into student activism to see changes in legislation.

This is even truer for Ontario high school students. They lack the student government structures that their postsecondary counterparts enjoy — the student unions that receive millions of dollars each year via student levies to make the student voice heard and coordinate activism efforts.

Secondary student government is limited in comparison, with student councils focused on extracurricular activities and often dominated by unelected staff members or other non-student actors who control operations behind the scenes. School board student senates consisting of student council representatives from multiple high schools do not collect levies and often act as little more than advisory panels to school board officials. Even the student trustees these student senates elect to attend school board meetings do not have a binding vote on decisions, leaving their voices to be heard, but not necessarily acted upon.

Similarly, the Ontario Student Trustees Association, which represents about two million secondary and elementary students, has few resources to communicate its existence to the average Ontario student, let alone mobilize its constituents to collective action. It is not that students are apathetic as the stereotype suggests. Rather, they lack a proper place in the Ontario education system to participate in decision-making processes as stakeholders. This forces them to fight from the outside with resource-demanding tactics of public resistance.

What secondary students need to think about is how to cement a long-term political movement that will provide them with more advocacy options to supplement public demonstrations. These students need to also protest the fact that education administrators and provincial policymakers are refusing them official representation in their schools and school boards. They need student input on curriculum changes so that setbacks to critical issues like sex ed can be lessened or prevented in the future. Students also need control over decisions on their own extracurricular activities.

Student councils, student senates, and the Ontario Student Trustees Association need to be recognized as legitimate representative organizations, and the former two need to be rooted in sound policies that enshrine student democracy and decision-making capability. Ontario, as well as educators, administrators, and other education stakeholders, need to give students a place in consultations.

Moving forward, secondary students need to keep the momentum from Friday’s protest going by questioning education structures and how they can sustain the fight to the point where policy change can be a tangible and realistic goal.

But it is not only secondary students who need to take the initiative. Postsecondary students have a leadership role to play in the student movement and should offer support to students in other levels of education who may soon join their ranks. Coalitions can be formed between secondary and postsecondary student organizations to advocate for common goals. Resources can be extended to assist secondary students, not only in activism, but in building democratic organizations that empower the secondary student voice to overcome the limitations of existing structures.

Justin Patrick is a first-year master’s student in Political Science.

Ford’s forcing of ‘free speech’ inhibits freedom

The PC government’s tying of postsecondary funding to free speech on campuses is an ironically coercive tactic that reflects antipathy toward critics of oppression

Ford’s forcing of ‘free speech’ inhibits freedom

On August 30, Premier Doug Ford delivered on his campaign promise to prioritize ‘freedom of speech’ on university and college campuses. A statement issued by the provincial government indicated that Ontario schools that receive any amount of provincial funding are required, by January 1, 2019, to develop and implement policies that would foster freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas both on campuses and within student groups.

If compliance is discovered to be insufficient, schools could face funding cuts. On an individual level, the government also recommends that students who present themselves as barriers to freedom of speech should be subject to campus disciplinary measures.

The idea of a government compelling freedom through threats and coercion indisputably contains a certain irony. There is also an eerie hypocrisy about Ford suddenly heralding himself as the defender of freedom of speech, being that one of Ford’s first actions upon taking office was to require that school teachers teaching sex ed only use a syllabus from the ’90s, essentially omitting any information dealing with gender identity, sexual orientation, or consent.

A casual reader might be confused about Ford’s seeming oscillation on the concept of the free and open exchange of ideas. However, any person who has some insight on what freedom of speech means in a modern Canadian context will be less flummoxed.

Ford’s enactment of this policy follows a trajectory which can be traced back to the University of Toronto in late 2016. The issue of free speech became contentious shortly after a series of vindictive public pronouncements were uploaded to YouTube by Professor Jordan Peterson.

In some of them, the professor adamantly and furiously denigrates the racial sensitivity training that he and his colleagues were required to undergo. In others, he angrily refuses to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as they and them, on the grounds that he does not desire to be recruited into transgender ‘ideology.’

The uproar over free speech that followed was not aimed at Peterson’s concerningly public targeting of soon-to-be-protected marginalized groups, but instead was directed at various parties of students, trans people, and Black activists who expressed concern and anger over the professor’s statements.

The connection between Peterson and the free speech policy goes deeper. Just before it was announced, the two men publicly met at an Ontario Progressive Conservative Youth BBQ at Ford’s home and discussed the issue of free speech on campuses. It seems that Peterson, frustrated at the reactions to his public speeches, discerned a potent way to bar the expressions of those who disagree with him.

So rests the self-defeating foundation underlying this distorted iteration of freedom of speech: that one should be free to flout whatever speech one wants. And no matter how dangerous, harmful, or cruel the ideas contained within, any reactions are wholly unwarranted and should be discredited — preferably with legal measures, says the Ford government.

If, hypothetically, free speech were to be truly admired and respected, the freedom to respond, protest, or otherwise react to others’ ideas would be given equal priority. There can be no legitimate freedom of expression without the freedom to express criticism. The current idea of free speech seems to subsist with narrow focus and intent: to allow social conservatives to express controversial opinions without consequence.

Unsurprisingly, this idea is quickly discarded when the controversy is from the other side of the political spectrum, or when the disparaging is directed from the disenfranchised to the privileged. We can turn to the example of Palestinian-Egyptian-American Randa Jarrar, a Professor at California State University, Fresno, who came under fire this spring for her tweet about recently-deceased Barbara Bush: “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.”

Calls for her removal from her position at the university quickly followed en masse, and the university was quick to state that her words were “beyond free speech.” Outrage from the crowd that had ferociously defended Peterson was mysteriously absent.

Perhaps this selective outrage is not so mysterious when one places the current uproar about free speech within the trend of a movement deemed by its supporters as anti-political correctness. In today’s political climate, it is for the most part no longer appropriate to openly and unapologetically say disparaging things about marginalized groups.

The federal government has taken legal measures to attempt to deter persons or institutions who might discriminate or compel violence against disenfranchised groups. For instance, Bill C-16 added gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, while Motion 103 calls for the development of approaches to reducing systemic discrimination against Muslims in Canada.

The increasing inappropriateness of publicly proclaiming ones’ hatred or distrust of marginalized groups requires that these reactions go underground — disguising themselves in clever cloaks. One of these cloaks targets political correctness, which asserts that the increased impropriety of speaking disparagingly about marginalized groups is itself oppressive and in opposition to the principles of freedom. This is the factory wherein the disguise of ‘free speech’ is manufactured.

It is a clever ploy: when the anti-political correctness brigade frames their argument as fighting for freedom, it is difficult to disagree with them without being attacked as a person who opposes freedom. Ford’s motion will likely go unchallenged for these reasons. On the surface, the discourse of fostering academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas seems unequivocally good, and a thing that should be unanimously desired by all Ontarians. Only by reading the fine print and placing the motion within the current political climate do its true intentions surface.

Campuses in Ontario stand to lose autonomy when they are required to be ideologically aligned with the state. And as with Ford’s infamous sex ed snitch line, the methods of policing that come with this bill are ambiguous. That the institution of the state would intervene and decide what kinds of discourses are appropriate and inappropriate on campus is contrary, not conducive, to the freedom of expression.

Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College.

Restoring the 1998 sex ed curriculum makes little sense in 2018

The Ontario PC government’s decision to scrap the 2015 curriculum undermines youth education on crucial topics like identity, consent, and the digital world

Restoring the 1998 sex ed curriculum makes little sense in 2018

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.

 

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.