two female teenagers holding hands in Toronto

Ontario’s Sex-Ed Curriculum: A Step Back for Health and Safety

By Gali Katznelson

Come September, it seems Ontario students in grades 1-8 will follow the same sexual education curriculum that was taught in schools in 1998.tse

Days after the Progressive Conservative Party’s win in Ontario, premier Doug Ford has announced that he will scrap the province’s elementary school sex-ed curriculum and replace it with one that is twenty years old.

A new curriculum, written in consultation with 4,000 parents and various experts in child development and online safety, was introduced by the Liberal Party in 2015 and included the following list of teaching topics:

  • First Grade: Identify body parts, including genitalia
  • Third Grade: Identify characteristics of healthy relationships (including same sex relationships)
  • Fourth Grade: Identify risks of online technologies
  • Sixth Grade: Build confidence and a foundation for healthy sexual relationships, including discussions about masturbation
  • Seventh and Eighth Grade: Demonstrate an understanding of consent, contraception, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

If the government were serious about the health and wellbeing of Ontarians, the new curriculum would take this 2015 curriculum as its foundation, and build upon it. The opposite appears to be the case. There is fear that the new (read: old) curriculum starting in September will omit key topics, such as same sex relationships, consent, and online safety. Members affiliated with Catholic school boards (which are publicly funded in Ontario), welcomed this news.

However, mounting pressure from advocacy groups and multiple petitions had the government changing course, saying that the new curriculum will not fully be replaced, rather it will be updated after further consultation with parents.

This latest move is an olive branch to those on the left, while maintaining the Conservative party’s insistence that parents should have greater authority to educate their children than the public education system. It is unclear what exactly children will be taught in classes this September, before consultations take place.

To fill the inevitable gaps of the next curriculum, all parents will need to be willing to engage their children in discussions of inclusivity and sexual health, an unlikely scenario.

Without a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum, Ontario will have to confront what could become a serious health and safety issue.

If the new curriculum does not teach young kids how to identify their bodies, they will not have the words or concepts to protect themselves against abuse. Removing these lessons from the curriculum will put children in danger. If we’re really talking about updating the curriculum, we should go further by teaching children that variation in genitalia exists, and that being intersex is normal. We should not be disempowering children by limiting the words they use to navigate the world.

A curriculum without adequate online safety instruction will further harm children. Social media was not around in 1998. The old curriculum only makes one reference to the Internet, or the “World Wide Web.” Sexting, cyber bullying, virtual relationships, and other comparatively recent concepts are topics that children should be comfortable handling safely in the 21st century.

Finally, same sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005. Omitting same sex relationships from the curriculum not only runs contrary to the values of the country, but places LGBTQ people at risk. We know that LGBTQ teens are at high risk for bullying, at school and online. In Canada, the suicide rate of LGB youth is over three times that of their heterosexual peers. In Ontario, 20 percent of transgender people have experienced physical or sexual assault, and 34 percent have experienced verbal harassment due to their identity.

It’s difficult to quantify the impact that teaching LGBTQ issues in schools can have on students’ mental health. But here’s an anecdote.

My former classmate, Keaton Freel, is a fierce advocate for the 2015 curriculum, according to his Facebook posts. I reached out to speak to him on this issue and learned that he struggled with his gender identity when he was a student in the Ontario public school system. Since gender identity was not discussed in school, he was inclined to think that being transgender meant that he was sick.

“It made it very difficult to come to terms with being transgender,” said Freel. “It left a legacy of poor mental health. Better sex-ed means that people like me will be less likely to grow up feeling broken.”

Removing discussions of LGBTQ issues from the classroom isn’t just discriminatory, but it contributes to further stigmatization and puts young people at risk for physical and mental harm.

In a publicly funded health care system with overflowing emergency rooms and staggering wait times to see specialists, there is no reason to burden the system even further when the means to prevent many health risks to children can be found within a curriculum that already exists.

Gali Katznelson

During her fellowship year, Gali Katznelson was an MBE candidate at the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School. Before her master's degree, she completed a bachelor’s degree in Arts & Science at McMaster University in Canada. Her fellowship project focused on clinicians' perceptions of the uses and regulations of smartphone mental health apps.

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