Matt Williams's son was in Grade 2 when he asked his father to explain a slur that he'd picked up on the playground.
The casual taunt – in this case, singling out gay men for ridicule without even knowing it – has made Mr. Williams favor Ontario's new sexual health education curriculum. “That only happens because children don’t understand … and we have to teach them,” he says.
The curriculum will cover topics not even imaginable when the current plan was started almost two decades ago, ranging from same-sex marriage to gender identity to sexting. Experts say these new concepts are essential to cover in a digital age.
“Because it is such a recent update, it is addressing some of the current topics which need to be addressed, for example sexting and the whole issue and concept of consent,” says Alex McKay, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. “Some of the older curriculums in Canada and the United States don’t address those issues.”
But it's also running into staunch opposition from thousands of Ontario parents, who have been pulling their children out of school, arguing that the curriculum, which is set to launch in September, is too graphic and infringes on their religious values. And while the lessons are reflect vastly changed social attitudes, the protests underscore longstanding and deep differences over when children should learn about sexual issues – and who should do the teaching.
'Reflecting the realities of our society'
The current curriculum was introduced in 1998 – before smartphones and WiFi – and after 17 years it was the oldest in Canada, says Chris Markham, executive director of Ophea, a nonprofit that was consulted on the changes and promotes health education.
The new plan starts early and includes many of the familiar sex-ed topics – teaching the names of body parts in Grade 1, for example. But it quickly begins to introduce newer concepts. Consent is first raised in Grade 2 relating to inappropriate touching, and in Grade 6 the curriculum discusses the importance of respecting consent.
“A clear ‘yes’ is a signal of consent. A response of ‘no’, an uncertain response, or silence needs to be understood as no consent,” it states. Inclusion of this material follows a string of recent cases of sexual assault involving teens and university students.
By Grade 4, children will learn about technology-based bullying and the dangers of the Internet. The risks of sexting are raised in Grade 7 and students will learn that words and photos “can become public even if shared for only a second.”
“Whether or not people think that their kids are getting sexual health education, they’re getting it merely by living in our society today," says Mr. Markham. "I think it’s important that our curriculum be updated to reflect the realities of our society.”
'Let Kids Be Kids'
Some parents disagree, and argue that control over what their children learn about sex is being placed with the Ministry of Education.
Holding signs reading “Let Kids Be Kids,” parents have staged demonstrations and school boycotts across Ontario, with another scheduled for June 5. On one day in May, 20,000 more elementary students were absent from Toronto schools than usual – almost 12 percent of the elementary school population. The protests have engaged people from different ethnicities and religions, including Muslims, evangelical Christians, and Catholics.
One poll conducted in April by Forum Research showed an even split among Ontarians, with 42 percent approving of the curriculum, while 40 percent disapprove.
Amandeep Singh is a father of three elementary school-aged children and plans to opt out all of them from the curriculum. He also now has concerns about the previous curriculum also, but was not fully aware of its contents until the reforms were revealed.
He says he does not disapprove of sexual education so long as it is age appropriate – but some of the material is introduced too early. “[If] kids are studying about math and science, [they will be] thinking about those things… but when at an early age kids can talk about sex and those things, their minds might start thinking about those things.”
Mr. Singh also objects to the language and mention of different sex acts in the document.
Parents like Singh have noted the Grade 6 curriculum discussion of masturbation, and the language in the Grade 7 curriculum that “engaging in sexual activities like oral sex, vaginal intercourse, and anal intercourse” can lead to sexually transmitted infections.
Although the passages are meant as suggestions for how teachers can handle certain topics and are not mandatory, many parents say these portions are too graphic and inappropriate for the classroom.
Sexual orientation and gender identity
The inclusion of same-sex relationships and gender identity, neither of which are mentioned in the current curriculum, has also been a point of contention. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn, who is openly gay, has called some of this opposition homophobic.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are mentioned in Grade 3 as examples of things that make people different, while, in Grade 6, students will learn the effects of stereotypes, including homophobia. Singh says these topics should be reserved for older children at an age when they can better decipher right and wrong.
But Williams, the Toronto father, believes schools need to address these issues early. “With the idea of gender identity, if kids don’t understand that a man can have a feminine personality or a woman can have a masculine personality, they can develop very biased attitudes early in childhood.”
The curriculum has lagged behind current societal attitudes towards homosexuality, says Roy Gillis, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “When you have a majority of society accepting same-sex relationships [and] same-sex marriage, it becomes absurd not to talk about it in schools.”