‘We want to have our voices heard,’ says teen behind provincewide student sex-ed protest

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‘We want to have our voices heard,’ says teen behind provincewide student sex-ed protest


Rayne Fisher-Quann’s activism used to amount mostly to tweeting from the comfort of her couch.

Now, the 17-year-old is a driving force behind the provincewide high school walkouts scheduled for Friday to protest the repeal of the 2015 sex-ed curriculum and demand better Indigenous education. She’s also joined forces with another student activist, Indygo Arscott, to demand more Indigenous education.

“What we really want is to open up a conversation,” said Fisher-Quann, a Grade 12 student from William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute in North York. “We want to talk and we want to have our voices heard.”

About 75 schools — an estimated 38,000 students — in cities such as Toronto, Ottawa, London, Kitchener and Peterborough have said they will participate in the walkout, making it among the largest student actions in recent years. Some elementary schools, including Scarborough’s Courcelette Public School, are also taking part.

Although the main day of action is on Friday, some students walked out Thursday, including those from Notre Dame High School, because it conflicted with a school event, or a professional activity day.

In Toronto, both public and Catholic school boards say students require parental permission to leave class; otherwise they’ll be marked absent. The Toronto District School Board advised high schools not to plan major tests or assignments for Friday so students aren’t penalized academically and says staff will monitor protests on school property to ensure student safety.

At Queen’s Park, Education Minister Lisa Thompson said she hopes students become engaged with the public consultations that the government will begin rolling out next week, on a new sexual education curriculum and other issues.

“I hope on Friday they’re talking about and looking forward to the consultation that we are embarking on, because we want to make sure every student in Ontario has an opportunity to put their best foot forward,” said Thompson. “And I encourage all of them to exercise their voice in the consultation as well.”

Liberal MPP and former education minister Mitzie Hunter said the walkouts are being staged because students “deserve to have the best curriculum available to them, and it’s irresponsible of this government to deny them that.”

Fisher-Quann said that as the daughter of educators — her father is a Grade 1 teacher and her mother is a college professor of early childhood education — she was always encouraged to think critically.

By the time she started high school, she had an understanding of “systemic oppression,” recalls English teacher David Regan, who was the staff adviser for the school newspaper, where Fisher-Quann wrote about violence against women and rape culture. And she was part of an ad hoc committee to change the school’s dress code, which it argued was racist and sexist because it prohibited wearing hair picks and clothing that was strapless or exposed the midriff.

“She has a really sophisticated grasp of systemic oppression,” said Regan. “She has the capacity to articulate that understanding clearly, passionately and reasonably.”

He recalled that when the committee met with administrators to rewrite the dress code, Fisher-Quann wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Feminism: The radical idea that women are people.” Neither she, nor anyone, ever referred to it, and she remained patient and reasonable, even when the committee was met with some resistance.

Fisher-Quann said she has long engaged in “casual activism,” describing herself as “the kind of person who attends rallies and protests, and tweets about the issues from my couch, but never really does anything.”

That changed this summer, when news broke that the Progressive Conservatives were repealing the 2015 health and physical education curriculum for elementary students, and replacing it with material used between 1998 and 2014 that doesn’t specifically address issues such as gender identity, consent and same-sex relationships.

Although high school students continue to learn the updated 2015 curriculum — it was never a source of controversy nor questioned for age-appropriateness — Fisher-Quann felt compelled to do something because “everyone should have a stake in this.” Her resolve deepened later that day when a man on the street catcalled her and she remembered how difficult it was for her younger sister when she came out as gay in middle school.

“I looked through Facebook and nobody else was doing anything … I jumped right in.”

Fisher-Quann started an online petition to save the curriculum, which has more than 44,000 signatures. And she and a friend, who’s no longer as active, founded March for Our Education. The name was inspired by March for Our Lives, the historic U.S. protest for tighter gun control led by Parkland, Fla., students after a high school shooting last winter left 17 dead. (Parkland survivor and student activist David Hogg is Fisher-Quann’s “celebrity crush.”)

The friends planned a rally at Queen’s Park for late July in support of the modern sex-ed curriculum and more Indigenous education. With just 10 days to prepare, it meant that after a full day of working in retail — Fisher-Quann’s summer gig — she toiled into the wee hours, promoting the event online, writing speeches, contacting media and lining up speakers, including Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

“It was really tough for me because I was working full-time,” she recalled. “But, like, I was so passionate about this.”

The goal was to attract a crowd of 50. Hundreds showed up, including students, parents, teachers and LGBTQ activists.

“It was super-overwhelming,” she said of the rally, where her speech garnered raucous applause. “I kind of refer to it as life-changing.”

Her “incredibly proud” father, Jason Fisher, was “in awe” watching her address that crowd, noting, “She’s always been a fierce orator.” Fittingly, she was named Rayne because it means mighty.

“She has never been afraid to stand up for what she believes in — even if that’s the right to go to a concert on a school night.”

Fisher-Quann says she’s standing up for this issue because scrapping the modern curriculum could be “a matter of life and death.”

That became apparent when she spoke with Rehtaeh Parsons’ father, Glen Canning, at a rally in support of the modern curriculum. The Nova Scotia teen was 17 when she died by suicide in 2013, after she told her parents she had been sexually assaulted by four teens and bullied online. Canning, who now lives in Toronto, says it’s crucial that sex-ed include discussion of consent.

“He said to me, ‘That education would have saved my daughter’s life,’” recalls Fisher-Quann. “That was just so deeply haunting and sad. It was so sad for me to think that people could go through that again.”

And she thought of her sister, now 14, who was bullied by students when she came out.

“Her middle school experience was just hell because those kids had never learned about LGBTQ rights and their parents had never taught them,” Fisher-Quann recalled. “It broke my heart … I don’t want anybody else to go through what my sister went through.”

Although her parents support the 2015 curriculum, they didn’t encourage her to take up this cause and were surprised when she did.

“They were worried, of course, but they have always completely supported me.”

They had reason to worry. As her activism intensified — in August she spoke at a Queen’s Park rally organized by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario — she received threats by email, social media and phone. These days, she answers her phone only if she recognizes the number.

“People were sending me stuff that was like, ‘I hope you get raped. I hope you die.’ … The hate has never super-scared me, but it can definitely be a lot sometimes.”

She hasn’t gone to police because she chalks it up to online “creeps” and “trolls.” If anything, she says, “it made me believe, even stronger, that I have to fight for this.”

Weeks ago, Fisher-Quann contacted Indygo Arscott, an Indigenous student in Grade 11, who started the group Decolonize Canadian Schools, which advocates for more Indigenous content in the curriculum and a safer space for Indigenous students. Both were planning walkouts to demand a return to the modern sex-ed curriculum and more Indigenous content in schools, so they worked together. They spread the word on social media, creating a student guide on becoming a “walkout ambassador” and an information package for faculty.

Arscott said connecting with Fisher-Quann was an opportunity to talk about the pressures and anxieties of being a student activist.

“When you’re a young organizer, you’re vulnerable to people wanting to tear you down,” said Arscott, who attends Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts. “When Rayne called me, I could share those stressors.”

Fisher-Quann and Arscott are also organizing a rally at Queen’s Park on Sunday at 2 p.m.

Despite Fisher-Quann’s new-found activism, she still plans on becoming a theoretical physicist.

“I’ve wanted to do physics since I was 9,” she says. “I was a scientist way before I was an activist.”

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy





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