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The Do’s and Don’ts of Sexual Education: Ontario: Are You Listening?

By Nada Nassar

Health Canada states that healthy sexuality involves much more than just avoiding negative outcomes and unintentional pregnancies. It involves developing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to maintain good sexual and reproductive health throughout your life.

Ontario’s sexual health curriculum, and Canada as a whole, doesn’t involve the development of those skills and knowledge.

Research into reports from Action Canada, CDC, Health Canada and many news outlets have concluded that there is something wrong with sex education in Ontario. From political leaders to teachers in the classrooms, everyone plays an important role in the development of youth. It is their job to ensure they are providing the best education to the next generation.

But when it comes to sex education, it isn’t happening.

The Situation:

Kathleen Wynne introduction of the Liberal’s 2015 curriculum was seen as a major step in a positive direction. Until that point, the curriculum hadn’t been updated since 1998. However, when Conservative Premiere Doug Ford repealed the elementary curriculum in 2018, he reinstated the version from 1998, most likely in deference to the traditionalist wings of the party. These actions have called into question the competency of Ontario’s educational systems and programs.

Action Canada states, “The sex-ed currently offered in Canadian classrooms does not live up to human rights standards, the most modern international evidence on best practices, or the 2019 Canadian Guidelines for Sexuality Education”.

The Guidelines are updated frequently, so why shouldn’t the sexual education curriculum in Ontario evolve with them?

The Problem:

“All territorial/provincial health education curricula were drafted in different years without any specific stated requirements or suggested dates for renewal,” says Action Canada. The publications throughout Canada were created from 2000 to 2012 with not much change, indicating a lack of modernization and revision for Sexual Health Education (SHE) across the provinces.

This lack of updating promotes old, traditional views and concepts that are no longer relevant or ignore current changes in society. An article published by The Conversation highlights that, while most educators and sexual health experts in Canada and at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) believe in comprehensive school-based sexuality education, it has been difficult “to bring educational policies into line with their recommendations, even with strong public support.”

Some of these difficulties have resulted from many parents who have voiced concerns about the content their children will be learning. In response, Doug Ford implemented a “snitch hotline” where parents could tattle on teachers who were educating their students about LGBTQ+ identities, contraceptives and birth control.

According to Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, “Having a Ministry of Education ‘snitch line’ that bypasses the systems already in place to deal with issues at the school level will prohibit parents and educators from addressing classroom concerns constructively.”

The Solutions:

The Canadian Guidelines for Sexuality Education argues that “a prevention-only focus can result in a distorted view of human sexuality that emphasizes negativity and contributes to shame and stigma.” It does not reduce sexual activity.

The obvious solution is to concentrate on evidence-based content and sex-positive discussions.

According to Action Canada, students don’t want their teachers delivering sex-ed because of their poor training and a lack of anonymity. Bringing in professional health educators encourages learning based on facts, not preconceived notions, in a non-toxic environment.

Finally, students need to be part of the discussion. We need to survey high school seniors on what could have prepared them better for the situations they’ve experienced. When students enter high school, they are at the height of their curiosity and vulnerability. Without proper sex education, how can we expect them to make the right choices? We can’t.

As well, we can’t expect them to proactively consider a healthy approach to their sexual activities, identity, and expression during the most challenging and confusing time of their lives.

A UTP Journal article states, “it’s clear that Canada is not doing its part to uphold the rights of children and young people” when it comes to accessing sex education.

When it comes to sex education, Ontario deserves a failing grade.

Revisiting Bill C-16 and Gender Pronouns

By I Lam Ko

Gender pronouns matter nowadays. From the invention of neo-pronouns, such as xe/xem/xyr and ne/nym/nis, to guidelines in universities and public institutions to share and ask for one’s preferred pronouns, pronoun usage is trending.

Many perceive using special or preferred pronouns as a move to create an inclusive and non-heteronormative environment, whereas others see these extra efforts on creating new pronouns and clarifying each other’s preferred pronouns as ridiculous and restrictive to freedom of expression. Those who object using neo-pronouns or the person’s preferred pronouns are thought to be Conservative or a rightist

Gender pronouns seem to mirror one’s political ideologies.

Debate on Bill C-16

In 2017, Bill C-16 was passed to add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to protect gender-diverse people. This ignited the fiercest discussion of gender pronouns. Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, considered the bill as a product of Marxism to restrict freedom of expression due to its potential criminalization of pronoun misuse.

Brenda Cossman, a professor of Law at University of Toronto, refuted Peterson’s argument by explaining that the bill was not about gender pronouns but the protection of trans rights and that it was constitutional and would not punish pronoun misuse. She suspected that Peterson’s fear of compelled speech was a pretext for expressing rightist transphobic sentiments in Canada.

Bill C-16 protects gender-diversity

Peterson’s fear of freedom of expression perishing with the legislation of Bill C-16 in 2017, did not, or has not, come true in Canada. Cossman was right – the bill was not about gender pronouns but it is about the protection of gender-diverse people.

In 2016 Ontario, 20% of transgender people have been physically or sexually assaulted and 34% have been verbally threatened or harassed. Therefore, there is a need for the federal government to implement reasonable restrictions on treating vulnerable individuals who have been suffering from discrimination and harassment due to their non-conformity to social norms.

However, I was disturbed by how gender pronouns were characterized in the debate and how both arguments were about digging out and denunciating the opponent’s hidden “radical leftist” or “rightist” political agenda.

Are “gender pronouns” totally irrelevant or meaningless, and do they only operate as a political weapon in our discussion of Bill C-16?

Asking the right questions

While it is problematic to equalize the bill to a leftist scheme to enforce compelled speech and to restrict freedom of expression, I think that it is equally naïve to deem the discussion of gender pronouns as a rightist move to impede the bill. Such a split helps nothing but produces a simplified, polarized version of today’s political spectrum.

The discussion of gender pronouns needs not be a thorn in one’s political stance. We should not treat “gender pronouns” as merely a rhetorical weapon but as a key part of our process of defining “gender,” “gender expression” and “gender identity” as well as the boundary between respecting one’s “gender expression” and executing one’s “freedom of expression.”

In an opinion piece on Unherd, Andrew Doyle wrote that asking for one’s preferred pronouns and stating one’s preferred pronouns assumed that “we each have an inherent gender that has nothing to do with our bodies.” Meanwhile, Judith Butler, the gender theorist and the author of Gender Trouble, has questioned the clear-cut dichotomy between sex and gender.

As the definition of gender remains ambiguous and contested, shouldn’t we ask questions that help us define and/or refine the meaning of gender and gender expression that truly benefit trans or gender-diverse people?

Gender pronouns are indeed worthy of discussion and legislation. But we can create a far more fruitful discourse if we are willing to go beyond the limitations of reductive political labels.

Canadian Drug Strategies

By Mykayla McGowan

Are Canadian Drug Strategies Out of Commission?

Substance use is the fuel that keeps the dumpster fire of Canada’s criminal justice complex and health care system ablaze. With 1 in 5 Canadians experiencing a substance use disorder in their lifetime, it is no wonder that the country we call home harbours the fastest-growing rate of overdose mortality globally.

The current Drugs and Substances strategy is failing Canadians and requires immediate modification.

Canada’s Current Situation

Approximately 6 million Canadians meet the criteria for a substance use disorder during their lifetime. Potential harms from such use have heightened amid Canada’s opioid crisis, as supplies have become increasingly contaminated with synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Canada’s Drugs and Substances Strategy emphasizes four key pillars to prevent and treat problematic substance use. The pillars are:

  • Prevention: educate the public about the risks of substance use
  • Treatment: support treatment and rehabilitation services
  • Harm reduction: reduce the negative effects of substance use on individuals and communities
  • Enforcement: address production, trafficking and diversion of drugs

What’s Not Clicking in Canada?

National Inconsistency

The current Canadian system unloads enforcement and harm reduction responsibilities onto provinces and territories to deal with individually. The lack of a cohesive, national strategy focused on reducing problematic drug use and overdose has set Canada and its citizens up for failure.

Research, Evidence, and Evaluation Issues

The government fails to ground its substance use policy in evidence. The country does not have a central organization for data collection and analysis on substance use issues, as exists elsewhere, such as in Australia and the United States.

If things do not change, Canadians will start to feel the consequences of the inaction taken by our federal government.

Is Anyone Doing it Right?

Although it is easy to critic drug strategies across the globe for one reason or another, some countries are doing it right.

Take Portugal, for example. As of 2001, the Portuguese federal government decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs as a part of a push to treat substance use as an issue of public health rather than public order in response to high rates of HIV linked to injection drug use.

Portugal’s strategy acts as a cohesive, nationwide plan that enforces policies on a case-by-case basis. Problematic drug use is addressed by dissuasion committees rather than the criminal justice system, where sanctions, charges, or voluntary treatment referrals are imposed instead of jail time.

As a result, Portugal has enjoyed various benefits, including:

  • Reduced problematic drug use and incidences of HIV/AIDS
  • Increased number of citizens utilizing treatment facilities
  • Fewer drug-induced deaths
  • Overall social costs of drug misuse declined

Why it Works for Portugal

The Portuguese drug strategy is informed by evidence and research conducted within the country. Portugal identified the issues they wanted to address and approached them in a culturally and socially informed manner.

So What?

This blog has two purposes:

  • Criticize the Canadian federal government’s approach to drug use (which is well deserved)
  • Identify a need for change

Imagine that the Canadian federal government wants to adopt an effective strategy to reduce problematic substance use. They would need to:

  • Accept contextual factors facing Canadians
  • Be open to innovation
  • Situate any intervention within an evidence-informed continuum of prevention, harm reduction, and treatment
    • An evidence-informed continuum supports the collection and monitoring of data and is required to evaluate the success of any policy-based approach to substance use. This continuum allows for corrections to be made easily, as they are grounded in evidence and account for changes in external factors, such as trends in drug consumption or overdose rates

A great place to start would be forming a national organization for data collection and analysis on substance use issues.

Creating such an organization will allow the government to self-reflect and identify the most pressing problems that require immediate attention, such as the opioid crisis. Only once the key issues are pinpointed, the organization could conduct research to find the most effective solutions for our countries problems.

Perhaps this imaginary organization could take notes on the drug policy of Portugal as a starting point.