Menu Close

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 However, when Conservative Premiere Doug Ford repealed the elementary curriculum in 2018, he reinstated the version from 1998, most likely in deference to the traditionalist wings of the party.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.

Addressing Climate Change

In 1991, Brain Mulroney and George Bush signed the acid rain accord, putting into place policies that to this day ensure that acid rain is no longer a major problem in Canada or the United States. Today, Canadians seldom even consider the issue of acid rain, seeing it as largely resolved.

Addressing environmental issues, like acid rain, typically follow a similar pattern as first observed by Tony Downs, in 1972. First, no one is paying attention to an environmental issue. Then something happens to put it on the public’s radar. This leads to widespread support for action, which is when the public realizes the costs associated with interventions. This leads to debate and eventually for public interest to decline. Finally, the public moves on to other concerns.

Recognizing this pattern, the key to addressing environmental problems is putting actions in place when the public is supportive. Those actions will then continue to work after the public has lost interest in the issue. The restrictions on pollution in the acid rain accord are a perfect example, as they continue to apply today despite the public’s lack of interest in acid rain.

Research in the latest issue of the Canadian Political Science Review, published by myself and my former Conestoga College students (Natalie Pikulski, Pranol Kunjamon Mathan, Suhani Singh, and Sarah Strickland), demonstrates that Canada missed an opportunity to act on climate change in 2007.

Our study used an algorithm to combine 29 different surveys from five Canadian polling firms between 2007 and 2021 to create a Belief in Climate Change Index. Individual polling firms estimate belief in climate change was as low as 52% to as high as 91%. Since polling firms ask different questions in different ways with different response options the index is best used as a trend line and not as an indication of the percentage of the population that believes in climate change at any moment in time.

Belief In Climate Change Index

When examining the trend line, belief in climate change starts at a peak in 2007, then dropped to the lowest point in 2011, before steadily rising back to a peak today in 2021. In 2007, there was a clear opportunity to address climate change with high public interest in the topic.

In the 2000s, some action was taken in response to public support, most notably the closing of coal-fired plants in Ontario. Closing coal plants combined with the financial crisis led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Canada from 2007 to 2009. Yet, rates then began to rise again.

Today, public belief in climate change is once again at its highest level since 2007 suggesting an opportunity for action once again exists. The most recent poll on this topic, done by Forum Research during the federal election, echoes this finding as it showed that 85% of respondents who had an opinion believed that climate change is caused by human activity. This is the highest level reported in a Forum Poll asking this question.

With a minority parliament, the breakdown of who believes in climate change is particularly relevant, as it shows which parties may be most likely to support action. The Forum Poll shows that 97% of Liberal Party and New Democratic Party supporters and over 87% of Green Party and Bloc voters also believe in climate change. Indicating that the Liberals have multiple potential partners to pass legislation related to climate change. (Belief amongst Conservative Party supporters is 75% but only 49% amongst People’s Party of Canada supporters).

A window of opportunity has opened for actions on climate change in Canada. Any actions taken should be designed in a way that they will continue to operate after the public has shifted attention to other issues. Policies should therefore be locked in and predictable. Policies developed today should make clear where they will be in ten years. This can look like a carbon tax with phased-in annual increases, industry energy efficiency standards phased in over a decade, and timelines for when vehicles with fossil fuels will be banned. Failure to act effectively will only lead to climate change returning to the public radar in a few years. Unfortunately, given the risk to the planet by then, it may be too late to prevent serious harm to the planet.