TORONTO—Opponents of Ontario’s modernized 2015 sex education curriculum say they’re disappointed that a recently announced revision remains very similar to the controversial 2015 version, and vow to continue fighting it.
“I think the parents who have been opposed to the curriculum up to now are going to continue to be opposed,” said Lou Iacobelli, a former high school teacher and founder of the Parental Rights in Education Defense Fund.
“In fact, they’re disappointed, they feel betrayed, because even when we were going through the election, I think a number of people supported Doug Ford because … one of the promises he made was that he was going to repeal the curriculum, withdraw it. It wasn’t just a question of making some minor changes.”
As part of an update to the province’s education program announced on March 15, Education Minister Lisa Thompson unveiled what she called an “age-appropriate” sex-ed curriculum based on consultations with parents and the public that resulted in 72,000 submissions.
The revised Health and Physical Education curriculum—the full details of which are scheduled to be released in May and implemented in September—will see children at various times between grades one and eight learning about online safety, abstinence, and family and healthy relationships. Lessons about cannabis will start in grade six, while mental health and concussion will be taught from grade one through grade eight.
Students will now begin learning about sexual orientation in grade five rather than grade six. Gender identity and gender expression will be taught in the second half of grade eight rather than beginning in grade six. Consent will be taught starting in the second grade.
“We heard from parents and they told us some concepts were being taught way too early, so we’re going to raise the age on some concepts. But I assure you here today, we are going to keep them all in the curriculum,” Thompson said.
Teresa Pierre, senior researcher with socially conservative group Parents as First Educators (PAFE), says the revised curriculum “does not go far enough in protecting the innocence of children.”
“Premier Ford committed to repealing the 2015 sex-ed, but the curriculum that has been outlined so far looks more like a reshuffle than a repeal,” she says.
“I have strongly advocated for a curriculum that does not sexualize children nor indoctrinate them with unscientific gender identity theory. The new curriculum still introduces contraception and STIs (sexually transmitted infections) in middle school as well as teaches gender identity theory to eighth graders.”
Changes to Ontario’s sex education curriculum have drawn controversy since 2010, when the then-Liberal government’s plan to update the 1998 curriculum by teaching younger grades about topics such as masturbation, anal intercourse, oral sex, vaginal lubrication, and the idea that being male or female is merely a “social construct” drew such backlash that the plan was shelved.
That same curriculum was reintroduced in 2015 by the Wynne government, again drawing an outcry from parents who were concerned that these topics were being taught at too young an age. There were several protests against it, and some parents even kept their children out of school.
Iacobelli, who was a high school teacher for 35 years, says he believes some of the topics in the curriculum are “too much, too early.”
“[There’s] gender identity, gender fluidity, gender expression, sexual orientation—they’re going to teach this to elementary kids,” he says. “A lot of this information is just too much for a young child to handle.”
Thompson noted that there’s an opt-out policy for parents who are uncomfortable with their children learning about certain topics in the new curriculum; there will be online modules to provide guidance for those who want to discuss those topics at home.
“We need to respect parents as the primary educators of their children,” she said on March 15. “So if there’s something happening in grade one or grade two a parent is uncomfortable with, they need to work with their teacher and their principal on the opt-out option that we’ve presented through this plan.”
However, she said that some topics will be mandatory.
‘The Value of Abstinence’
Toronto resident Nancy Liu, who has children in the school system, says she translated the curriculum into Chinese and knows it thoroughly. She worries parts of it will confuse children and guide them in the wrong direction.
“When you are educating children, you cannot just tell them how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases during sexual intercourse, promote various sexual orientations, and give children excuses of trying out sexual activities with different people. It takes children in the wrong direction and makes it impossible for young children to make the right choices,” she says.
“The main point should actually be: don’t mess around in your sexual life. … The focus of sex education should be to educate children to be faithful and keep their virginity.”
Pierre, who has four children, two still in school, says a better approach to sex education would be a return to a traditional emphasis on the prevention of pregnancy and STIs.
“Sexual education in the primary years should provide [children] with information on reproduction and prepare them for the onset of puberty,” she says.
“Information on contraception and STIs should wait until high school. High school sex education should stress the value of abstinence as the 100 percent effective prevention of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Communicating within a relationship, including about consent, should be taught then too.”
A petition put out by PAFE in February calling on Ford to keep his election promise to repeal the 2015 sex-ed curriculum and for Thompson’s resignation garnered close to 5,000 signatures.
“I think [Ford] is going to meet some of the wrath of the people,” says Iacobelli. “They feel betrayed by what he did.”
Erosion of Parental Rights
Iacobelli believes a gradual but relentless erosion of the rights of parents to have control over what their children learn is afoot in Ontario. One example he gives is that of Steve Tourloukis, a Hamilton dentist and father of two who took legal action against the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in 2012 with support from Iacobelli’s organization.
Tourloukis wanted advance notice so he could decide whether to pull his children from sex-ed lessons he found objectionable according to his Greek Orthodox faith.
Four years later, on Nov. 23, 2016, Justice Robert Reid ruled that the school board didn’t have to notify Tourloukis of what his children would be taught in regard to sexuality. Reid also agreed with the board’s decision to not allow him to opt his children out of lessons that contradict his family’s religious beliefs.
“The government lawyer in the courtroom made the argument before three judges that equity education should trump any notion of parental rights. And even though two of the judges did make the case for parental rights in the judgement, the overall decision was against us,” says Iacobelli.
“The government probably spent half a million dollars to fight us.”