Ontario students will be talking a lot more about consent and learning about sexual orientation a year earlier, but discussions about gender identity will be put off until Grade 8 under changes to the health curriculum obtained by the Star.
After promising to scrap the elementary school sex-ed curriculum ushered in by the previous Liberal government — saying parents had not adequately been consulted and after an outcry from social conservatives about age appropriateness and any talk of gender identity — Premier Doug Ford’s government last year launched online surveys and telephone town halls before revising the lessons.
The new curriculum modernizes and builds on the one introduced by the Liberals in 2015 and even retains much of the material that originally caused all the controversy. That should allay concerns among educators that social conservatives were going to force changes that could put students — especially LGBT youth — at risk.
“For me, this curriculum really does reflect a priority of the government’s, of educators, of parents and of (society) of keeping kids safe,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in an interview.
Lecce, who only recently took over as minister, also noted that “for the first time in the province’s history” there will be “mandatory learning when it comes to things like body image and body shaming” as early as Grade 1.
Consent is also first introduced at that time, “setting boundaries” so children know what is appropriate and inappropriate touching and that they can go for help.
The revamp revises and expands the 2015 curriculum in a number of areas, most notably around consent, concussions and mental health. It also refines teacher “prompts” and student responses that provoked some upset among some parents — especially in regards to masturbation, which is still covered in Grade 7 — and repeatedly refers to diversity and tolerance. It also is clear in stating many times that should students seek help or encourage friends to do so if they are unhealthy relationships or unsafe situations.
With the new materials, Ontario will be introducing topics such as consent earlier than any other province, and will be among the leaders in areas of bullying, concussion, mental health and cyberbullying, “tolerance, respect and inclusion” and even cannabis use and vaping when compared to other jurisdictions across the country.
But among provinces that cover gender identity — not all do — Ontario now introduces that issue the latest, moving it from Grade 6 to Grade 8.
The government will also usher in a new, standard system for parents to opt their children out of sexual health and development lessons. That may be at odds with the current practice that some boards like Toronto and Peel have had in place, where parents cannot formally opt their children out of lessons around gender identity, citing human rights obligations.
Starting this fall, boards will have to give parents 15 school days — or three weeks’ — notice about upcoming human development and sexual health lessons, and during which parents can submit opt-out forms.
Lecce said in the consultations, a majority of parents were clear they wanted their children to learn about gender identity, but “making sure that students are at an age” where they can do so maturely.
“At the core of this curriculum is respect and tolerance, particularly when it comes to homophobia,” he said.
In Grade 5, students will learn about respecting people with different experiences, including sexual orientation, he said, noting that it was moved ahead a year from the current Grade 6.
“Respect is brought in early,” he added.
On masturbation, rather than saying it can be “pleasurable,” the teacher prompts now say that it is something people do “because it feels good.”
Amid attention to consent amid the #MeToo movement, the curriculum also gives a clearer and more modern definition of consent as “ongoing and given freely” and says “it is important to remember that a person can change their mind and say no at any time to something they said yes to before.”
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It also includes lessons on abstinence, which remain in Grade 7, as well as a clear outline of the health risks and emotional impact of sex. Marriage is a separate topic, covering why people choose to do get married, and how it is important in some cultures and religions.
While the province was consulting on the changes, then-education minister Lisa Thompson ordered boards to revert to an older version of the sex-ed curriculum, but some (including Toronto’s public board) said gender identity and sexual orientation would continue to be taught.
Using the outdated curriculum for the past school year caused teacher unions and civil liberties associations, as well as families of LBGT youth, to turn to the courts and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, arguing it was discriminatory.
Educators have also been urging the Ford government since last spring to release the update so teachers would have time to review it and take part in professional development sessions.
Lecce, who was only recently named as education minister in a massive cabinet shuffle, said the government will be providing $2 million to help with the implementation and training for the new curriculum.
“Parents know that we’ve listened, and provided a document that is inclusive and, at its very core, emphasizes respect for differences,” he said.
With more comprehensive lessons on mental health, Lecce said that “reflects reality” of today’s youth. He said his own family, like others across the province, has been affected by mental health and substance abuse issues.
“A close family member of mine faced a life of addictions and subsequently passed,” Lecce said. “The idea that it’s not someone down the street that you don’t know … it’s your aunt, your uncle, your mom, your dad. A lot of people face addictions challenges … I think we just have to be honest about it.”
As for the delay in releasing the curriculum, Lecce noted that he was appointed education minister near the end of June, and that he wanted to “take the time to listen to some stakeholders, to review the parental consultations” and also talk to parents and review the materials before they were released.
He said most boards teach sex-ed in the second half of the school year, so they will have until 2020 to train teachers.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy