The roll out of Ontario’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum (better known as “sex ed”) has caused a flurry of activity on my Facebook feed. I feel blessed to have friends and acquaintances on every side of this issue but it makes Facebook commenting a bit of a mine field. Try as I may to post nuanced positions, the reality is that social media is a not a friend of nuance. That’s why I have my blog: so I can annoy everybody — from left to right — at the same time… But only if they choose to read me.
First, let’s get the elephant out of the way. I am a practicing Roman Catholic. As a matter of religious doctrine, I believe myself — and that handsome guy I make kids with — to be my children’s primary educators. This means that the responsibility to choose what my children learn falls squarely and unequivocally on my shoulders. The decision to send my children to school or to keep them at home is a religious right, or should be. Many Catholic parents oppose the new sex ed curriculum because they see it as an usurpation of parental authority and their role as primary educators. Not, take note, because they are afraid of the real names of their genitals or what they are used for. In fact, many of us wish teens would learn more about how their reproductive systems work. More on that later.
I am a Catholic parent but I am also a citizen. I live in a democracy which is — as Sir Winston Churchill reminds us — the worst form of government except for all the others we have tried so far. When Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the new and improved curriculum a few years ago, the outcry on the eve of provincial elections caused the hasty retreat of the controversial new elements. The new Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to reintroduce the curriculum and is showing no sign of backing down. The people who have elected her are reacting with a collective shrug or, as a Facebook friend of a friend wrote: “I’m so glad they’ll be teaching consent.” Because really, how else are young men and women supposed to learn what a consensual sexual relationship is unless they learn it in school? My point is that the people who elected the Ontario Liberal Party are generally happy with the curriculum changes, either because it reflects their own values on health and sexuality or because they don’t care. The parents currently storming the barricades are not those who elected Premier Wynne. Is it a surprise to learn that she is not sensitive to their plight?
As my friend John Robson explains very well in this short video, the provincial government is in the business of teaching civics and morals. You may argue that the government should limit itself to value-neutral academics such a reading, writing and arithmetic but this would be a theoretical exercise at best: the Education Act spells the role of the school system in shaping values and morals very clearly. You’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound: once your children are under the auspices of our state-run education system, the system makes the rules. And that includes the rules about dating, mating and reproducing (or, preferably, not reproducing). As Justice Deschamp wrote for the majority in the 2012 case pitting Quebec parents against the Quebec government over the contested Ethics, Culture and Religion (ECR) curriculum (emphasis is mine):
Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.
Yup. That’s right. While this decision refers to a different curriculum in a different province, it does a good job of highlighting the highest court’s sentiment with regard to parental rights in education. I have heard many people, several teachers themselves, argue that the school had to teach sex ed because the parents weren’t. That’s not true. The Ontario education system has to teach sex ed because matters of civics and morals are part and parcel of its mandate. You might argue that this does not correspond to your idea of civics and morals but you ascribed to that vision when you registered your children in school. Remember that dotted line? Your name’s on it.
In an address at the Maryvale Academy Gala last January, Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast tore into Kathleen Wynne’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum calling it a “seizure of parental authority”. He said (emphasis mine):
“We know that the proposed program threatens the fundamental right of parents to educate their children in the moral dimension of sexual behaviour (…). Parents are best qualified and have the greatest interest in working with their own children to handle this serious topic at an age and developmentally sensitive time,” he continued. “More notably, parents have the fundamental right to do so―a right the Province appears willing to usurp without due consideration.”
(You can read the entire address here.)
Willing to usurp? The Province is not merely “willing to usurp” the role of parents as primary educators, it’s obligated by law to do so. As for the fundamental right to educate children in matters of morals, this is a right that is not recognized by law. As the Supreme Court clearly stated, that right stops at your front door. Some of my Facebook friends who support the curriculum updates shrugged: “It’s a great curriculum. Those who don’t agree just have to opt out.” Believe me, as a parent who had to pull an anxious child out of Health & PE:
I had to collude with my daughter to find out exactly when to pick her up. Had my daughter not been a willing participant, I would have had no way of knowing when the Health component of the PE class was being taught. Then she would be marked as “absent” — which adds up on her report card — and still expected to write the Health & PE test, failure to do so would also show on her report card. I was glad to give my daughter an occasional break from “Health” but on the whole, she still had to learn the stuff and write the test. Opting out? Not exactly. And here’s the difficult lesson of my post so far: you can’t really opt out of Health & PE even though you have a theoretical right to, as per the Education Act. You have to opt out of the system. We took our children out of Health. And French, math, science and history too. We homeschool. You’re not happy with the extent of government encroachment on your role as primary educator? Your options are: (1) change the Education Act; (2) force the rolling back of the curriculum by electing a government that supports your vision; (3) take your children out of public school. I’m sad to inform you that the happy middle where you get to send your kids to school to learn things you want them to learn at the exclusion of those you don’t like is not an option. Sorry. This is not a cafeteria.
Education is always political. Remember what they say about the hand that rocks the cradle? Well, if you don’t, the Provincial government does, as does Canada’s highest court. There is no such thing as a value-neutral sexual education class. The term “safe sex” is not value neutral. Neither is “risky behaviour”. When I helped my grade 8 daughter study for her Health exam, I learned that Natural Family Planning was also known as “the calendar method” and had a success rate of 30%. This kind of misinformation is not value-neutral.
What your children learn in school is always political. It may look neutral if you share the values promoted in the curriculum but your comfort is only as safe as our democratic system: someday, the tables may turn. After all, the social conservatives — be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish — are having all the babies. Do you think Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar are raising feminists and allies? Doesn’t this make you a little squirmy about the world your 1.3 children will grow into?
Believe it or not, I am not losing sleep over the so-called graphic content of the new curriculum. My extended family has a few same-sex married couples and a transgendered woman. I have dear friends of all colours of the rainbow. Gender fluidity is a fact of life in my family. The mention of masturbation in grade 6 and sexually transmitted diseases and co-related risky behaviours in grade 7 are not phasing me in the least: by then, my children had long been exposed to them in the school yard and especially the school bus. Our bus drivers always listened to mainstream pop radio, where hip hop songs are way more explicit than anything their gym teachers could dream-up. Honestly, your children’s innocence is only as safe as that of their peers.
If anything, I wish the curriculum taught more about how babies are made! I had a conversation with my daughter a few years back while she was texting a friend. Both girls had received the best sex ed the school system could provide. A friend had had unprotected sex during her periods and wanted to know if she could get pregnant. Both thought that ovulation happened during menstruation. So here we are, giving our teens all the information they need to have safe sex. All the information except how babies are made. 16 year-old girls are having unprotected sex without the foggiest clue of when they are fertile. Great. Have we thought of letting kids figure out how to masturbate on their own and teach them how babies are actually made instead? Just a thought.
Nobody should be complaisant about the government’s mandate to teach sexual education. You may be fine with the current state of sexual education but if you — like me — live in a democracy and enjoy the perks of political freedom, you may very well find yourself on my side of the barricades one day. And I promise that I will still be there with you.