Martin Regg Cohn: Re-education on sex education for Doug Ford's Ontario
Doug Ford’s Ontario is open for business.
And closing its mind to the world around us.
See no sex-ed, hear no sex-ed, speak no sex-ed.
By going back in time on sex education — to a time, two decades ago, without texting and sexting, omnipresent porn or consciousness on consent — Ontario is going where no other province in Canada, of any political stripe, has gone before.
We are now uniquely frozen in time, thanks to a premier who declared that Canada’s biggest province would revert — until further notice — to a curriculum first written in the late 1990s. Not even the Progressive Conservatives who long ruled Alberta ever allowed their sex-ed curriculum to be held hostage by socially conservative parents determined to impose their world view on an entire province.
How did we get here? The battle is less ideological than it is cultural, generational, pedagogical — and political, for politicians care more about votes than values.
Under Patrick Brown, who owed his 2015 PC leadership victory to socially conservative members, the party flirted shamelessly with the anti-sex-ed agenda. Ultimately, though, Brown renounced and denounced the hidden agenda of homophobia and intolerance he found among its leading crusaders.
But when Ford entered the race to replace Brown as leader this year, he too made common cause with the party’s evangelical movement. Ford eked out a narrow victory thanks to their support, and he is determined to repay his political debt — at the expense of the people and parents of the province.
For it is often forgotten that parents who opposed a modern sex-ed curriculum always had the right to withdraw their children from any lessons. But that wasn’t good enough, for they wanted to impose their own narrow view on everyone else, depriving the majority of students, and their parents, of a modern curriculum that would equip them for the modern world.
Instead of a personal opt-out, they demanded a provincial blow out. In sex-ed as in politics, the squeaky wheels get the lubricant.
In Doug Ford’s Ontario, the tail wags the dog. The premier fears the wrath of so-cons scorned, and so he plays along.
Never mind that the updated curriculum was wildly distorted by opponents. No matter that sexually transmitted infections are climbing rapidly, especially in the U.S. where sex-ed courses are similarly under pressure from evangelical movements promoting abstinence: syphilis rates quadrupled from 2000 to 2016 while chlamydia has doubled; and gonorrhea has jumped 46 per cent since 2010.
Ford’s government has officially rescinded a sex-ed curriculum that taught students the importance of consent, of tolerating difference (notably in sexual orientation and gender identity), of defending against bullying, and, yes, the names of body parts to help safeguard children against sexual abuse (empowering them to speak with greater precision to police when needed).
Victims of sexual abuse or bullying, and their parents, have publicly condemned Ford’s decision, warning it endangers lives. Glen Canning, whose daughter Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide after an explicit photo of her sexual assault was shared online, described the government as “infuriating.”
Odd that so many pro-life activists would risk the lives of teenagers, and their sexual health, by campaigning against a conventional curriculum that empowers students at various stages in their education to protect themselves clinically, physically, emotionally and socially.
Now, facing a growing backlash, the Tories are belatedly attempting damage control — albeit through obfuscation, not education.
Education Minister Lisa Thompson, who proudly announced last week that the new curriculum had been suspended, claimed petulantly this week people were jumping to conclusions about what’s in and what’s out: “We are reverting to the ... curriculum that was last taught in 2014. This curriculum leaves ample space to discuss current social issues.”
That’s called trying to have it both ways, through mixed messages for teachers, students and parents. Meanwhile, the new curriculum will remain suspended while the government carries out what Thomson calls “fulsome” parental consultations — likely through the miracle of online interactions.
But while the Ford government fights to preserve the innocence (and ignorance) of students now in school, what about that cohort of kids who were exposed to the modernized curriculum introduced in 2015? For three full years, these young minds have been inculcated (indoctrinated?) with what the Tories view as dirty words and filthy smut.
What is to be done? Will Ford conjure up a re-education curriculum to right the wrongs he believes were inflicted on Ontario’s schoolchildren? Will he create mandatory summer courses to deprogram kids before they act on the updated curriculum — Sex-ed Detox for Oversexed Pupils?
As the premier likes to say, “Help is on the way.”
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn