What’s Up with Ontario?
Socially conservative and populist rhetoric is taking over the airwaves in Canada’s most populated province, Ontario, now that Doug Ford has been elected premier of the province. Premier Ford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative party (PC), is bringing not only an economically conservative agenda, but also a socially conservative one, which may negatively impact Ontario children for generations to come.
The PC party won a clear majority in the 2018 provincial elections, winning 76 of the 124 seats. While many in Canada want to act as if a Donald Trump-like character could never win an election in Canada, Premier Ford is proof that these types of divisive right-wing populist candidates are also gaining popularity in Canada.
One of the most contentious issues the new Ontario government is pushing forward is dismantling the comprehensive new sex education curriculum, as well as abandoning plans to update the curriculum with a new emphasis on Indigenous knowledge and history, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “Calls to Action”.
Sex Education in Public Schools: Challenging & Necessary
The Ontario sex-ed curriculum was updated in 2015. With Premier Ford’s plan to scrap the 2015 curriculum Ontario will go back to a curriculum written 20 years ago. Using the 1998 curriculum means schools will no longer be required to teach about:
- online bullying
- same-sex relationships
- gender identity
In a statement, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) urged the Ontario government to reconsider its decision. They explain that the government must “work with health care providers, educators and other experts as well as the public to ensure a more up-to-date sexual education plan is put in place as soon as possible. SOGC members have already done a lot of work in this area through our public education website, SexandU.ca. SexandU.ca is an award-winning website dedicated to providing the most up-to-date, evidence-based, unbiased, relevant information on topics related to sexual health. [...] The site was first launched in 2001 and receives nearly 15,000 visitors per day from around the world.”
Premier Ford has generally remained vague about his problem with the new sex-ed curriculum, simply saying things like it teaches “too much, too early.” However, there is a video online from a small meeting before the election, in which Doug Ford states, “Grade two! (Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne) is trying to parade this ideology down our backs about six different genders or ten different genders, I think it’s six different genders and all the nonsense.” These are the rambling musings of a politician who is trying to make it sound like talking about diversity is so challenging for children to understand. Unfortunately, as adults it is our problem that we falsely equate sex-ed with sex and sex organs. Many get hung up on the idea that there is no way to discuss same sex relationships without talking about same sex sexual intercourse, or that there is no way to talk about trans and transgender issues without discussing which “parts” are between someone’s legs.
However, if you talk to children about these issues in grade 2, they are not interested in these aspects of diversity. They can understand that – just like you can love your parents, your pets, your friends – love exists in a diversity of ways and sometimes that means falling in love with someone of a different gender and sometimes it means falling in love with someone of the same gender. The same goes for discussing gender roles in society and how sometimes we do things outside of what many consider gender norms – a woman who is a carpenter, a girl who hates pink, or a man who wears dresses – might be outside of the norm, but it doesn’t make them bad or less human. There is also space here to ask children to question the norms and where they come from. Even in grade 2, many children will have bumped up against unfair gender expectations, i.e. boys do not play with dolls, or girls aren’t as good at sports as boys.
This is nothing perverse, but in adulthood we often forget that these are simple concepts to explain that do not need to go into details at all levels. It is easy to teach about equality, difference, acceptance, respect and diversity. I will always remember the first time I saw the documentary “It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School” which brought to my attention how simple these concepts are for elementary students and how they become more difficult for teenagers and adults because we have more social baggage.
On her blog, Ontario Peel District principal Janet Jackowski wrote about the 2015 Ontario sex-ed curriculum, “I don’t know why this curriculum was a target. I honestly don’t. The consultation process was probably the most comprehensive of any modern-day curriculum, with over 4000 parents, over 2000 educators, and hundreds of students included. The Health curriculum update was long overdue. When it came out, I was pleased to see that it addressed current issues such as online behaviour, that it reflected current realities such as LGBTQ2S+ individuals and families, and of course that it dealt directly with the issue of consent. I don’t understand how anyone who had read the curriculum could think it was a bad thing.”
Indeed, Global News did a survey of provincial education curriculums across the country and found that the 2015 Ontario sex-ed curriculum is similar to what is being taught across the country.
Indigenous Knowledge and Stories in Public Schools: Challenging & Necessary
In July select educators in Ontario were planning to be involved in summer-time curriculum writing sessions, which aimed to overhaul the Ontario curriculum placing a new emphasis on Indigenous issues and ways of knowing. According to CBC news, “The sessions were set to take place over two weeks in July bringing together over 50 Indigenous educators, Elders and knowledge holders to work on revising curriculum to introduce more Indigenous knowledge and content into provincial classrooms.” These sessions were abruptly cancelled by the new Ontario government.
Regarding the decision to cancel the meetings the Ontario principal Janet Jackowski wrote another post, explaining her perspective on the cancellation. She wrote, “I have learned a great deal about our hidden past here in Canada, and have worked hard to ensure this information is conveyed in an accurate and age-appropriate way to the staff and students at my schools. The writing teams were to create resources that would make it easier for educators who didn’t necessarily know where to start to convey an accurate history to our students and begin the work of reconciliation in earnest. The cancellation of these writing teams was like a gut punch.”
The Fightback Against the PCs Socially Conservative Agenda
Despite attempts to roll back gains in the education system for teaching diversity, acceptance, and understanding, Premier Doug Ford is facing huge push back from across the province and North America. Prominent sex advice columnist Dan Savage spoke to CBC news, explaining a number of studies from the University of Illinois which demonstrate how the elimination of sex-ed in schools leads to higher rates of abuse of girls and higher suicide rates.
Savage explained to the CBC, “In the absence of comprehensive sex education – that acknowledges the existence of queer kids, that talks about consent, that talks about gender – kids are going to get their information about that from pornography, they are going to get it from their peers [...] those kids who don’t get good decent sex education at home are rattling around out there and really can present a danger.”
Numerous organizations, labour unions and individuals have come out against the decisions of the Ford government. Over 20 school boards across the province have written public letters of complaint to the government. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) wrote a press release against the government’s plans, explaining, “It’s unfortunate that a minority group of socially conservative parents oppose the current curriculum, some without having seen it. For this the Ontario government is jeopardizing the safety of students to do another consultation. […] Some of that opposition stems from homophobia, given that the current curriculum addresses lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in a meaningful and age-appropriate way. These groups are protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code. School is a place to learn and have respect for diversity and inclusion. One would hope that the Ford government would respect Ontario’s human rights laws.”
At the same time, Indigenous organizations, publishers, and writers have come out strongly demanding the Ford government reopen discussions on integrating Indigenous history and knowledge into the curriculum. Indigenous authors Cherie Dimaline (Métis), Monique Gray Smith (Cree/Lakota/Scottish), Tracey Lindberg (Cree), and Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Anishinaabe) have been some of the most vocal. They have also offered free workshops in classrooms for Ontario teachers and free copies of their books as a personal gesture to stand up against the Ontario government’s decision. Portage & Main Press, HarperCollins, the Anishinabek Nation and other institutions have all offered free books and resources to classrooms in Ontario.
Author of the acclaimed book, “The Marrow Thieves”, Cherie Dimaline explained to the CBC, “We owe it to the youth — Indigenous and Canadian — to be allowed to live fully and well. [...] The only way this can happen is through Indigenous knowledge, and one of the best ways to get there in a respectful and meaningful way, is through our stories.”
Why We Need Better Curriculum
Why does any of this matter? Across Canada many LGBTQ+ and Indigenous youth are suffering, due to racism, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination. Statistics Canada, and numerous reports by universities and NGOs confirm that these youth are often misunderstood by their peers, their families and by society – furthermore the issues they face are real systemic barriers to living and enjoying life in the way that many of their non-Indigenous and non-queer peers do.
According to statistics collected by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust:
- LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2009).
- Adolescent youth who have been rejected by their families for being LGB are over 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (Ryan, Huebner, Diaz, & Sanchez, 2009).
- A study in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario revealed that 28% of transgender and Two Spirit people had attempted suicide at least once (Taylor, 2006).
- While suicide is never the result of one cause, bullying can have a long-lasting effect on suicide risk and mental health. The relationship between bullying and suicide is stronger for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth than for their heterosexual peers (Kim & Leventhal, 2008):
>> 68% of trans students, 55% of Lesbian/Bisexual students and 42% of Gay/Bisexual students reported being verbally harassed about their perceived gender identity or sexual orientation.
>> 20% of LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted about their perceived gender identity or sexual orientation.
>> 49% of trans students, 33% of lesbian students and 40% of gay male students have experienced sexual harassment in school in the last year (Taylor et al. 2011).
Statistics about Indigenous youth and the challenges they face are equally as troubling:
- “In 2016 a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled the Canadian government was discriminating against Indigenous children because on-reserve communities are not afforded the same level of resources for their families as other communities. As a consequence, more Indigenous children are likely to end up separated from their families in foster care, group homes, or detention facilities than non-Indigenous children. In Manitoba, for example, 10,000 of the 11,000 children in care are Indigenous. In Alberta about 70 percent of children in foster care are Indigenous.” (Gillian Steward, 2018)
- Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age. The suicide rate for First Nations male youth (age 15-24) is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous male youth. For First Nations females, the suicide rate is 35 per 100,000 compared to 5 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous females (Health Canada, 2010).
- “Suicide rates among Inuit are shockingly high at six to 11 times the Canadian average. In Nunavut in particular, 27% of all deaths since 1999 have been suicides. This is one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and it continues to rise, especially among youth.” (heretohelp.bc.ca, 2008)
- Indigenous youth made up 46% of admissions to correctional services, despite making up only 8% of the youth population. (Statistics Canada 2016/2017)
- In 2006-2007 Indigenous youth made up 21% of youth in custody, this has skyrocketed in 10 years to 47% (Indigenous boys) and 60% (Indigenous girls). (Statistics Canada 2016/2017)
- “More than one-third of Aboriginal people haven’t earned a high school diploma, and there are only eight percent of Aboriginal people aged 25 to 64 who hold university degree, compared to 23 percent of non-Aboriginals in the same age group who do.” (Charleyboy, 2017)
Taking away curriculum that is meant to foster a better understanding about queer and Indigenous youth – along with the gross arguments used to justify this plan by Premier Ford – will only further marginalize these youth. While the new curriculums cannot and will not fix all of the issues facing these youth, it means that other youth, and teachers, cannot continue to plead ignorance, or say things like, ‘its too complicated,’ or ‘I was never taught this stuff.’ This is too often what people say when confronted with new Indigenous words for places, or different forms of sexual and gender identity. At the same time these new curriculums can educate those who do not identify as queer or who are not Indigenous – they will also empower those who are. When Indigenous youth understand their rights, when queer youth understand their rights, and when all youth have a better understanding of consent and respect for diversity it empowers young people to stand up for themselves and defend their bodies, their dignity, and their rights in the face of prejudice and discrimination.
Understanding the Roots of Oppression
It is important to note that in the province of British Columbia, Canada, the BC government directed schools to begin teaching an understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in Human Rights Code. BC also has a new curriculum which promotes Indigenous ways of knowing in all subject areas and all grade levels. However, despite being far ahead of the draconian policies of Premier Ford in Ontario, BC “does not yet meet expectations” (this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the term the new curriculum uses instead of “fail”) when it comes to teaching and respecting queer and Indigenous youth.
Though the BC curriculum is approved on paper, there is a huge lack of funding for teacher training, education, and resources. I believe that the BC government does this on purpose.
Firstly, while making safe spaces for queer youth is not inherently threatening to capitalism – and indeed much has been written about how corporations are profiting off queer/Pride celebrations and issues – fighting for true equality does. Capitalism relies heavily on free labour, especially from women in the home. It also relies on low self-confidence, traditionally in women, but increasingly in men as well. Keeping people ashamed of the way the look, the way they feel, and stressed about their social status is a fundamental way that capitalist/bourgeois ideology sells products and maintains divisions between people. The basis for queer oppression and women’s oppression are similarly the traditional family unit and its relationship with the patriarchal-class society and capitalist economical and political order.
In 1884 the co-author of the Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels wrote, “The form of family corresponding to civilization […] is monogamy, the domination of the man over the woman, and the single family as the economic unit of society. The central link in civilized society is the state, which in all typical periods is without exception the state of the ruling class, and in all cases continues to be essentially a machine for holding down the oppressed, exploited class.”
The power of LGBTQ+ identities is that they ‘queer’ the institution of family, which is the basis of patriarchy and the economic unit of capitalist society. While it is true that capitalism is making space for queer identities and families to avoid a conscious movement of queer people questioning capitalism and its institutions, there are still huge limitations. We see these barriers and limitations spring up in the form of backlash in Ontario or the lack of funding, resources, and will in BC.
Secondly, when discussing Indigenous issues and the 94 “Calls to Action” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, how could school curriculum promote true reconciliation? The government and provincial ministries of education all want to promote the “Can’t we all just get along” version of reconciliation. True reconciliation means giving Indigenous people their lands back, it means self-determination and sovereignty over their land and communities. Under capitalism Canada cannot afford to do that.
Why We Must Defend and Expand Our Gains
The reason we have won the right to free public education is because people demanded and organized for it. The reason the residential school system was shut down finally in 1998, is because people fought to shut it down. The reason same-sex marriage is legal or that gender identity is protected under various provincial Human Rights Codes, is because people fought for it. It is not possible that we receive any gifts under capitalism, the gains of working and oppressed people have been made through hard work, sacrifice, and struggle. If we do not fight to maintain and expand the rights that working and oppressed people have won, we may not get to keep them.
The changes to the curriculum in Ontario are no different, we are going to have to fight to improve and maintain the quality of education. Nevertheless, this is not only Ontario’s problem. Across Canada curriculum may exist, but where are the resources and the will to teach these challenging issues in a respectful and meaningful way? Where are the resources and the will to challenge stale and outdated knowledge about sexual health and Indigenous people? The work has begun, but we have a long way to go and many barriers ahead. It is important for all human loving people to defend the gains that have made and to push to expand them in a real way that will change the statistics facing these youth and build towards a more equal and human society for all. A new world is possible.
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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