After a year of uncertainty, the Ontario government has unveiled a new sex-ed curriculum. The government boasted in its press release that it is the result of “the largest ever consultation of Ontario’s publicly funded education system” — a grand total of 72,000 “engagements” with Ontarians. Despite the political show of consultation, however, the updated curriculum is very much like the one that the government scrapped shortly after Premier Doug Ford took office. Some subjects, such as cannabis, have been added; others will now be introduced in later grades. Thankfully, neither consent nor LBGTQ learning has been deleted from the curriculum.
Considering how minimal the changes are, it’s perhaps surprising that some who lobbied against the former curriculum are calling this one a win. The cheering is largely in support of a clear directive from the government that all school boards must now create a written exemption policy. Charles McVety, an evangelical leader and the president of the Institute for Canadian Values who lobbied against the 2015 curriculum, told the Ottawa Citizen that the exemption policy “essentially repeals the entire program.” To him, and to others, it means that parents now “have the right to opt out of that crazy teaching.”
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Some observers have been quick to point out that exemptions have always been an option for parents. That’s true, sort of. Previously, under the Liberal government, exemptions were granted on a case-by-case basis. But they’ve never been mandatory for schools — or wrapped up in such overt politicking.
What’s more, in the past, school boards could restrict exemption offerings, drawing the line at excusing students from learning about issues covered by the Ontario Human Rights Code. In fact, Peel Region’s school board did just that in 2015, when it refused to exempt students from learning about LGBTQ rights and identities. “We cannot — we will not — by action or inaction endorse discrimination,” said Tony Pontes, the board’s director of education, at the time.
It’s unclear whether schools will still be able to restrict exemptions. “You do not get to opt out of human rights,” Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, stated in a press release. And, of course, he has a point: as much as it may seem otherwise, the human-rights code is not optional. Bigots don’t get to decide whether gay families are happy, healthy, or normal.
Those who laud the exemption tend to believe that learning about sex, gender identities, and consent will corrupt their children — as if there’s anything sexy about sitting in a packed classroom while your teacher explains how a vagina works. I’m being facetious, maybe, but truly: imparting facts in a school setting is highly unlikely to encourage rampant promiscuity, raise pregnancy rates, or reverse anybody’s true identity expression. Research has also shown that abstinence-based teaching (which is tantamount to an exemption) doesn’t work. Some research out of the United States actually suggests that it’s contributing to the rise in teen pregnancies there.
So it’s also worth asking: Should we allow exemptions at all? Yes, religious freedom matters. And yes, parents should have the power to determine how their children are raised. Except, that is, when they shouldn’t. We don’t call math or history optional; those aren’t subjects about which every parent knows best. So I have to wonder: If we don’t assume that every parent can teach a child about high-level math concepts, why do we think they’re the best resource for explaining oral sex or what it means to be genderqueer? The answer, too often, is that they are not — and it’s kids who lose out when we pretend they are.
All of this goes beyond personal preference. This isn’t about what rights parents have or don’t have; it’s about what values we want our public institutions to reflect. In acknowledging that parents have the right to raise their children as they wish, we must be careful not to build systems that allow — even encourage — basic human rights to be superseded. Healthy sexual lives matter. Consent matters. LGBTQ rights matter. Education matters. And, as we head into a new school year, we should all think about the message we’re sending students when we pair any of these things with the word “optional.”