For Ontario students heading back to school in September, there will be a noted difference in this year’s health and physical education lesson plan. The new Ontario government, led by Progressive Conservative Premiere Doug Ford, is making a big change in the curriculum.
Rather, the change is more of a leap back in time.
The sex education curriculum – a small section of the overall health curriculum – is reverting back to its former version, which was changed in 2015 to reflect the changing times. Much has been made of the fact that the former version was last updated in 1998, before the integration of the internet in modern society, and light years before the huge gains made by the LGBTQ+ community.
Issues like consent, gender identity, same-sex families, sexting and online safety do not exist in the 1998 curriculum.
While Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson, has said these issues will be addressed in the revised version there is one gaping hole being overlooked:
Consultations will only begin in the fall, meaning students will already be in school well before any progress is made on revisions.
In London North Centre, MPP Terence Kernaghan has a unique perspective on the curriculum change.
Kernaghan is London’s first openly gay MPP, as well as a former educator here in London. He said this change is not for the better.
“I wish I could say I was surprised but I’m not,” he said of the curriculum change. “The way the PCs had their leadership race showed a drastic shift toward the right.
“We moved backwards 20 years.”
This shift toward the right, toward what he calls radical right conservatism, was made apparent from the throne speech. What was so upsetting, he said, was while the new government said everyone has a place in Ontario, it used outdated language that implies homosexuality is a choice.
“A chill went up my spine when they said the word ‘lifestyle’,” Kernaghan said. “I don’t presume they are talking about a healthy lifestyle or an unhealthy lifestyle.
“That was immediately followed by sexual orientation, so obviously someone with a conscience got their hands on that speech and had it included. But obviously, that was a dog whistle to their radical, social conservative base.”
A couple notable presences for that speech were Tanya Granic-Allen – a PC candidate who was removed from the running after incendiary comments regarding gay marriage were brought to light – and hard-right Christian conservative booster Charles McVety. Both helped reinvigorate the PC’s hard right base.
Change was due
As for going back to the 2014 curriculum, the one thing to understand, Kernaghan said, is that this is still the 1998 curriculum. It comes from a time before gay marriage, before the social integration of the internet, and before consent and before LGBTQ+ issues were talked about. His own experience as a student, he said, was sorely lacking.
“I had zero support as a young, gay boy. There were no role models. There were hardly any resources,” he said. “It was scary. It was isolating and obviously, you’re very quiet about it.”
While he said he was fortunate to have had a couple openly gay teachers in high school, he said that same exposure – the same positive gay role models – is not the case for most students.
“I think about youth today and we have an obligation to make sure they understand that being gay is okay,” he said. “When you take a look at the rates of youth suicide in Canada… It’s unknown how many of those are LGBTQ+, because unfortunately they could also be dying in silence as a result of not feeling as though they will be accepted.”
Which goes back to the Premiere’s attitude on the curriculum rollback. When Doug Ford said he was going back to a curriculum to a time before gay marriage was legal, he said “Well, it’s not like the world’s going to come to an end.”
Kernaghan respectfully disagrees.
“Quite frankly, I have to say yes – some peoples’ worlds will come to an end,” he said. “One person that commits suicide. One family that is devastated. One mother and father who lose their son or daughter. Those lives will never be the same again. That is a world that’s come to an end.”
So where to from here?
As a former teacher-librarian, Kernaghan said he can’t see educators going backward. There are ways to introduce topics now excluded from the health and physical education curriculum without overt civil disobedience. Exploring literature that tackles those themes, for instance, can lead to meaningful class discussions outside of the now cancelled portions of the health curriculum.
Consent, for instance, absolutely needs to be talked about in school, he said. By omitting it from the broader sexual education discussion, it only exacerbates the problem.
“I don’t think that anyone can think removing the topic of consent is okay,” he said. “We know that one in three female students will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, and one in six males. How can we possibly allow that to happen?”
During his time as a teacher-librarian, Kernaghan had a program called the Human Library. Students got first-hand knowledge and perspectives from many marginalized people, hearing stories from sexual assault crisis workers, homeless and transgendered individuals, as well as others from the community.
He said through the Human Library program, he saw the positive change that took place in students. It was easier for educators to have open discussions. Students had safe spaces to ask questions.
Much needed talk
Sure, some of the subject matter can be awkward, he said. But that awkwardness is necessary. This is doubly true now that so much information is available at a mouse click.
“Kids are put in front of so much information and media through the internet, we have to be able to give them the tools to survive in this world,” he said. “We need to give them the tools and terminologies and they can advocate for themselves.”
However, that focus specifically on sex-ed undermines the value of the curriculum as a whole. That constant referral to the curriculum as sex ed, he said, is incredibly frustrating.
“Healthy relationships is only one-tenth of that entire curriculum,” Kernighan explained. “It’s that right wing, social conservative push to make this into something worse than it is.”
Still, there is a need to revise the now-cancelled curriculum changes. While it has been called one of the most widely-consulted pieces of legislation – a claim that opponents say is not true – the implementation of the 2015 curriculum was done without proper explanation to the public as a whole, as was the ability of parents to opt out of those portions that they found inappropriate.
Teachers, he noted, want what’s best for students and parents while respecting cultural differences.
In 1998, there was no consideration of online security. Twenty years later, having that as part of the curriculum is vital to student survival.
“I’ve heard horror stories from some of my former students,” Kernaghan said. “It’s that faceless sort of thing. You might think they are doing something completely innocuous by playing a game but you are exposed to… goodness knows.”
To that end, he said he believes the introduction to online safety in the 2015 curriculum was age-appropriate, building incrementally year over year. Same goes for discussing same-sex relationships in Grade 3, for instance. It normalizes the subject – especially for those children with two moms or two dads, he said.
One of the most frustrating parts of the backlash to this updated curriculum is its lack of specification.
“What parts specifically are objectionable?” Kernaghan asked, adding social conservatives, and the new government, have flip-flopped on this repeatedly. “I would like to know from the conservatives themselves.”
An interesting note: When an opposition MPP, current Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson, was supportive of the 2015 curriculum.
Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have said they will go into 124 ridings to re-consult for the curriculum, but that will take time and with consultations beginning in the fall, it will lead to a year of confusion. The repeal part has been achieved, but not the replacement. All of it, he said, because of fear-mongering and catering to a small but vocal social conservative base.
“I think this entire campaign (from Ford) has really tried hard to waken that negative base,” he said. “I’m scared to think of what will happen in Ontario.”
Sadly, he said it’s part of a negative trend in education on a whole. The government also decided against including more Indigenous content in the classroom – something that goes against the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“We have responsibilities under the commission,” he said. “To ignore or deliberately omit them is just going to send Ontario backward.”
Meanwhile, Kernaghan said, the Official Opposition – including London’s three NDP members, will continue to fight for a modern, updated curriculum that addresses the complexities of the times.
London-Fanshawe’s Peggy Sattler, in particular, has been very vocal on the subject. She too has a background in education, serving as a trustee for the Thames Valley board for more than a decade.
Still, it will be an uphill struggle against a majority government who is more hung up on the word sex than the word education.
For more on the subject, check out Gerard Creces’ opinion piece on the curriculum change and how sex-ed was for him in the ’90s.