On September 8, nearly half the students attending Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Public School — around 700 — were kept back by their parents. The following day, protesters vandalized the walls of Thorncliffe Park Public School and Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy with the words “shame on you”.
The Thorncliffe Parents Association issued a statement defending the protests. “We are not sending our children in Public School for the whole month of September until the curriculum is taken back and parental rights are respected, its only 17 days, we know you can do it”.
This is just the latest round in the ongoing controversy over Ontario’s new sex education curriculum. The big question this time around is whether or not the protesters will win.
It’s highly unlikely. Wynne understands why the previous attempt to introduce changes failed. It wasn’t the controversial contents of the 2010 curriculum and the protests against it that killed it. Rather, it was McGuinty’s failure to properly inform the public and the breakdown in communications in his own government that really did it in.
When Ontario’s Minister of Education Liz Sandals announced the curriculum on February 23, Nicholas Hune-Brown recalls in a recent essay for Toronto Life Magazine, “The subject of sex ed exploded like a supernova in Ontario. It was discussed on Punjabi drive-time radio, featured on Chinese talk shows, described in apocalyptic terms in community newspapers distributed at strip malls and supermarkets”.
“In churches and mosques across the GTA, anti-sex ed activists organized information sessions to teach other parents about the contents of a document they deemed immoral, radical and dangerous,” said Hune-Brown.
The perception that the curriculum was introducing material too early and too taboo for young children — identifying sexual anatomy, masturbation, questions of gender identity, homosexuality and so on — sparked large opposition rallies across Ontario over the spring and summer.
Groups such as the Canadian Families Alliance, Parents against Ontario Sex Ed-Curriculum, Coalition of Concerned Parents, Parents as First Educators, and the Parents Alliance of Ontario sprung up to oppose it.
The makeup of the anti-sex ed activists, however, is quite different from the last time the Ontario government tried to update the curriculum.
As Brown notes, “Five years ago, when Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals tried (unsuccessfully) to update the sex ed curriculum, the loudest howls of outrage came from the same white, Christian social conservatives who show up to protest gay marriage and abortion. This time, the protests have primarily been led by new Canadians: Muslims and Sikhs from the outskirts of the city, Chinese evangelicals from Thornhill and Markham, Coptic and Russian Orthodox Christians from Scarborough and Peel.”
But this isn’t really the point. Since the 1998 sex education curriculum was introduced under then Premier Mike Harris, successive Ontario governments have struggled to find common ground with religious conservatives on the subject of sexuality and education.
The 1998 curriculum was horribly outdated. Topics such as the risks of sexual activity on the internet and sexting over the mobile phone, basic sexual anatomy, sexual health, identifying STIs, and understanding and respecting different sexual orientations were not being taught to students.
Ontario’s self-styled ‘education premier,’ Dalton McGuinty, tried to correct for this in 2010 but failed miserably. When McGuinty’s new curriculum (initiated by Kathleen Wynne who was then McGuinty’s education minister) was finished in January of that year, the Ministry failed to even make a public announcement or publish a press release on its website.
Unbeknownst to anyone, it sat waiting on a government website for three months until Charles McVety, President of Canada Christian College, and not the Ontario government, broke the news and let the public know what McGuinty and his radical government were ‘really’ up to.
Social conservatives pounced, accusing the government of infringing on parental rights and religious values, corrupting children and trying to force a radical sex education curriculum on school kids and unsuspecting parents.
The incompetence of the McGuinty government allowed his opponents to frame the public’s perception. On April 22, 2010, only five days after people even became aware of the curriculum, McGuinty retreated and said his government would revisit the policy.
McVety characterized the curriculum as immoral and radical, describing its contents as “unconscionable to teach eight-year old children same-sex marriage, sexual marriage and gender identity … even more absurd to subject sixth graders to instructions on the pleasures of masturbation, vaginal lubrication, and 12-year-olds lessons on oral sex and anal intercourse”.
Shortly after McVety’s public intervention, Queen’s Park was threatened with mass rallies and protests to force the government’s hand. The very mention of mass protests was all McGuinty needed to toss the curriculum out.
Despite present opposition to the new curriculum, Wynne’s government has been much more careful in controlling the message. The public was made aware of the new curriculum well-before its release, marketing the policy around the idea that the new curriculum would reflect the dangers of online activities and educating students on important health issues.
When Liz Sandals announced the updated curriculum, she said its primary concern was to “reflect [the] health, safety and well-being realities faced by today’s students. Updates to the curriculum include healthy relationships, consent, mental health, online safety and the risks of sexting.”
In other words, the fact that the ‘message’ was tightly controlled, that the public was informed about the government’s intentions, that the media knew what the government was doing and what the curriculum would include and so on, gave the Wynne liberals a much more receptive audience. Moreover, when the curriculum was released, the ministry published numerous guides and fact sheets on its website explaining every part of the curriculum from what children would be learning and why.
Although Wynne has encountered large and noisy protests over the months, including a recent petition against the curriculum with over 185,000 signatures, and even parents pulling their children out of school, I don’t see Wynne backing down and throwing the curriculum out. She understands that the previous attempt failed because of bureaucratic bungling and incompetence. Unless Wynne buckles and scurries away in a moment of panic, this badly needed curriculum is here to stay.