The Undoing of Ontario Sex Ed

From school walkouts to government snitch lines: how Doug Ford’s curriculum reversal became a political flashpoint

pencil shaving on a blur backdrop
Natalie Vineberg / The Walrus

Kim Fry was at Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto for an appointment in 2015 when she first saw it on the news: hundreds of parents protesting Ontario’s incoming sex-ed curriculum on the lawn of Queen’s Park. Then premier Kathleen Wynne had just unveiled the revised document, which newly included discussions around consent and sexual and gender identities. It was the first update to the curriculum since 1998, and many parents wanted it gone.

At her appointment just a few minutes’ walk south of the protest, Fry, an elementary-school teacher and mother, decided to start a dialogue with those in opposition of the new curriculum. Perhaps, she thought, if she could explain why she supported it, she could change their minds. After her appointment, she packed up her belongings, walked over, and spent her afternoon talking to those on the other side of the political spectrum—parents who, unlike her, did not want teachers to talk to their students about topics such as masturbation, sexual assault, or gender identity. Most protesters she spoke with, she says, told her they hadn’t read the curriculum. To her, it seemed they only wanted to believe the “conservative slant to the story”—that the new curriculum would indoctrinate kids, teaching them age-inappropriate lessons about sex and sexuality.

She couldn’t change anyone’s mind that day.

Fry never expected to be protesting from the retreating side three years later, when Premier Doug Ford announced he would reverse Ontario’s updated curriculum to its predecessor. She wound up back at Queen’s Park—this time, in an effort save the curriculum she desperately wanted to talk about in 2015. She protested alongside youth, other teachers, and parents who wanted their kids to learn about sex, sexuality, identities, and consent in the classroom. Petitions began circulating online. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a queer parent of a ten-year-old about to start grade six filed a lawsuit against the province over the decision. “For me and for my daughter,” reads the parent’s affidavit, “the 2015 HPE [health and physical education] Curriculum is so important because it helps to foster a safe and respectful environment at school and elsewhere.”

At Da Vinci Alternative School, the socially progressive–leaning Toronto elementary school where Fry teaches grades two and three, teachers began meeting immediately to coordinate their next steps. Most of them agreed: students’ well-being and education were more important than political debates. For Fry and her colleagues, the fact that an education issue has become ammo for a partisan fight is inconceivable. The best interests of children, not political leaders, they believed, should be brought to the fore.

But Fry and her fellow protesters haven’t been able to sway Ford’s government. As the 2018/19 school year progresses, Ontario teachers have been told to teach the 1998 curriculum or face professional consequences, including threats of reprimand from the provincial government.

The threats haven’t stopped Fry. She continues to teach the 2015 curriculum to her class of seven- and eight-year-olds. At a parent-teacher conference night in early October, she announced her intent not to revert her lesson plan back to the 1998 version. She told parents they could report her—via a “snitch line” set up by the Ford government should teachers go rogue—if they felt it necessary. To her, it didn’t matter. “It’s my professional duty as a teacher to keep our kids safe,” she says.

Fry is at the centre of a massive debate in Ontario among teachers, parents, students, and the government, all vying for their say on the curriculum—and it’s a fight that shows no sign of slowing. As misinformation swirls about both the former curriculum and the updated version that followed, there’s little consensus about who is learning what and when. Both sides are heavily invested in legal battles that could either spell victory for progressive educators and parents or strengthen an already-emboldened conservative base. At a time where conversations about sex, consent, and identities are dominating our public discourse, the outcome of this clash will set a precedent about how Ontarians—and, possibly, students in the rest of Canada—learn about the modern birds and the bees.

In November 2014, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals began a consultation process to hear from parents about their children’s health- and physical-education curricula, which include sex ed. The lesson plans in place then were outdated—the health curriculum was written in the ’90s, long before the internet was a part of our daily lives, and while efforts were made to update it in 2010, they were quashed after major backlash; a group of Christian evangelicals led by notoriously inflammatory leader Charles McVety, threatened to pull children out of class should the curriculum be updated, leaving then premier Dalton McGuinty with little choice but to back away.

By the time the new curriculum was unveiled in February 2015, 4,000 parents—one for nearly every elementary school in the province—along with 2,400 educators and 700 students were surveyed about the updates, according to the Ministry of Education. Then minister of education Liz Sandals told media the new curriculum put Ontario ahead of the pack when it came to teaching students about consent, bodily autonomy, sexting, gender and sexual identities, and more. But the consultations did little to soothe the concerns of parents and educator. Many hailed from religious communities and were fearful the curriculum would compromise their values around sex and sexuality. In a widely circulated, anonymous letter from Peel region, a writer made inaccurate claims that youth would be “taught masturbation,” to “reveal their private parts,” and be “provide[d] instruction on anal sex play.” Thousands protested in rallies outside Queen’s Park, in front Wynne’s constituency office, and in their own communities.

Parents left unhappy with the curriculum were forced to either take their children out of sex-ed classes or live with it until another political leader could make concrete change in office. For many parents, Doug Ford seemed most likely to make those changes. After securing his role as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, Ford latched onto parental upset over sex ed. As Wynne’s approval rating remained a liability during the 2018 campaign—for reasons primarily unrelated to sex education—Ford doubled down on his promise to scrap the updated curriculum, earning the support of its critics. Misinformation continued to spread: Ford falsely claimed the Liberal government failed to consult with parents on sex ed and that the 2015 curriculum was “based on ideology.” His supporters praised his stance. In a Facebook post, a community group called the Thorncliffe Parents Association described the issue as “a test of good and bad.” “We are proud of ourselves to be a part of this movement…run by common parents,” it wrote.

It’s not the first time political parties have leveraged sensitive education issues for support, and it won’t be the last. Teresa Kelly, a teacher at Toronto’s Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School, remembers when the fight to maintain gay-straight alliances at Catholic schools became a struggle between religious leaders, educators, and Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in 2013. That year, for the first time, the Liberal government pushed to include the terms homophobia, transphobia, and gender identity in legislation—and was met with both great support and strong opposition. A similar fight over sex-ed curricula in Catholic schools transpired in Alberta in 2017. In response, Premier Rachel Notley rallied against any educational documents that “deny science [and] evidence,” pitting herself against Opposition leader Jason Kenney. Notably, Ford has cozied up to conservative Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe, who could take a cue from the Ontario leader on education issues (he already has on environmental files).

Ford came to power in June, and by July, before students could step foot in their classrooms for the 2018/19 school year, the 2015 sex-ed curriculum was scrapped. Since then, little information has been made public about the repeal, but conservatives have boasted of it as a win, a campaign promise upheld. In the meantime, minister of education Lisa Thompson and Ford have orchestrated yet another consultation with Ontarians on the curriculum. Thompson, who has provided limited comment on the situation and notoriously dodged journalists’ questions on the matter, has encouraged parents to fill out online forms—with the option of anonymity—where they can voice their thoughts on what their kids should be taught about sex. The consultation ends in December.

For teachers like Fry, there’s been little else to do but wait. Employed in what Fry calls a socially progressive community in downtown Toronto, she expects little backlash from parents for teaching her students the updated lesson plans. The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, a union representing over 58,000 full-time and 24,000 occasional public-school teachers in the province, has tried to protect teachers, like Fry, who want to keep teaching the 2015 curriculum. At the outset of Ford’s repeal, the ETFO told teachers it stood behind them should they choose to proceed with the 2015 curriculum in their classrooms; by September, the union launched a court challenge against the province, claiming the reversal of the curriculum was against the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The ETFO has asked the Ontario Superior Court for an injunction to reinstate the 2015 curriculum until the Ford government is prepared to introduce its own updated version. “In the past two decades I’ve worked in education,” says ETFO president Sam Hammond, “that’s always been the process.”

Perhaps those left feeling most powerless in Ontario’s sex-ed fiasco are parents who have unwittingly entered a fight over their children’s education—parents who, without access to legal aid or connections to union reps, have little say outside of signing petitions, showing up to Queen’s Park, or filling in the online forms provided by the government. It’s how Amber Labelle felt when she arrived in Ottawa from Boise, Idaho, this summer with her husband and two kids. The family moved to the Gloucester area to be closer to her husband’s family in Gatineau, Quebec; a job opportunity sprung up so quickly that Labelle and her husband had little time to consider much else but packing and moving. When Labelle arrived, she quickly learned of Ford’s decisions and felt a familiar unease. “The way [Ford] chooses to proceed with his administration—it’s all very Trumpesque,” she says. “And after two years of living under Trump, you don’t want that to be your new reality.”

At two and five years old, her kids are still too young to be immediately affected by the changes, but Labelle is one of many parents who have chosen to teach sex ed at home. A veterinary ophthalmologist, Labelle has always best understood things in scientific terms, and that’s the approach she’s taken to sexual education. Her five-year-old daughter, she says, has known since she was two that sperm, an egg, and a uterus are required to make a baby. She’s found books from the science community that help explain not just sex but concepts that are more complex, like gender identity and consent.

But she knows that not all parents are comfortable having those conversations. Even if they are, there’s the possibility of misinformation, especially when it comes to the tougher topics, like contracting and treating sexually transmitted infections, different sexual identities, or how to address consent, sexual harassment, and assault. If parents choose not to and teachers aren’t able to, who will have these discussions?

In many cases, the onus to learn about these complicated issues has shifted onto kids themselves. And it can be tough, to say the least, for youth to navigate sex ed on their own. Consider, for instance, that Canadian boys are exposed to porn of some kind, much of which blurs lines about consent, autonomy, and assault, as early as ten years old. And consider that, according to 2014 Statistics Canada data, twenty-two of every 1,000 Canadians as young as fifteen have reported an incident of sexual assault. Meanwhile, a 2017 report out of the University of Toronto that reviewed the 2015 curriculum found that even it could have gone further in defining difficult-to-understand concepts like consent, “pointing to the need for additional support and resources.” The report also called for teachers to accommodate different needs in their classrooms, which could include more inclusive literature for LGBTQ and gender nonconforming students and programming made specifically for teens.

Many students have voiced that they, in fact, want better sexual education, perhaps more than anyone does. It’s why, just a month into the school year, an estimated 38,000 high-school students across the province participated in a walkout—the largest student-driven walkout in Ontario in recent years—to call on the government to restore the 2015 curriculum. A grade-twelve student at Toronto’s William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute named Rayne Fisher-Quann orchestrated the protest; she believes many students benefit from the 2015 curriculum. Before it was implemented, she says, “there were girls saying they didn’t know the definition of consent, they didn’t realize sending nudes [if you’re underage] was illegal, and so on.”

Fisher-Quann had organized protests before, including one in grade nine, when she rallied against the Toronto District School Board for what she calls its restrictive dress code. This time, she began a petition online, calling on students to have their voices heard. When the petition went viral, she co-organized the walkout, certain that decision makers would be moved by the sheer number of students involved. The walkout itself was an even greater success than she imagined.

Standing in front of Queen’s Park, many students made impromptu speeches, in front of hundreds of others they barely knew, about why the 2015 curriculum mattered to them. Some talked about consent, others about their sexual identities, and all were adamant that the curriculum spoke to their realities. “It’s so rare that we listen to teenage girls,” Fisher-Quann says. “So many people my age are telling me, ‘What you did really inspired me, because I didn’t know people listen to students.’”

There’s still time to see how the sex-ed battle will play out in Ontario. The ETFO will have its challenge heard in court in January 2019; if the challenge is successful, the 2015 curriculum will be reinstated, and the Ford government would have to fight, in higher courts, to repeal it. Until then, Hammond says, the union is advising its teachers to exercise their professional judgment when it comes to implementing elements of the 2015 curriculum into their present-day classes. If the challenge isn’t successful, consultations will continue within the province to rewrite the curriculum. How that will be received depends on what’s included—and, perhaps more importantly, what’s excluded—from the document.

But Kim Fry says she’s not sticking around in Ontario to see what comes next. She has plans to move her family to Nova Scotia, where her partner has family. And, although the move was planned before the government’s curriculum change, it doesn’t hurt that more liberal policies have been implemented there. While standing up for her children’s right to a better education is crucial, she’s tired. It’s only a matter of time, Fry says, until Ford’s camp does something even more catastrophic—and she doesn’t want to be around to see it.

In the end, the sex-ed fiasco has done little more than pit the left against the right. Opposition to the curriculum repeal is often just as much about Ford’s Progressive Conservatives as the curriculum itself (as Labelle opined twice on the record, “Fuck Doug Ford”), and supporters of Ford consider it a campaign promise ticked off early in his premiership. Too frequently lost in the conversation, even among the most well intentioned, is those most at stake in this partisan battle: kids who, without access to certain lesson plans, may find themselves without the information they need to navigate their futures as adults.

Erica Lenti
Erica is a senior editor at Xtra Magazine.