Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sex Ed: Private Lessons

Four weeks into the Ford government in Ontario, it's been hard to read precise meaning into official pronouncements on the Education file.

Perhaps because very little thought has been put into them.

At first, Education Minister Lisa Thompson appeared to walk back a repeal of the Human Development and Sexual Health curriculum, saying that consent and "gender appreciation" will be taught; although  the latter is not in the curriculum. She also reassured reporters that the Ministry will be looking carefully at a section on "developing sexual relations," which also doesn't exist. Thompson's parliamentary colleague Lisa McLeod fielded questions in the House, prompting more confusion while the Education Minister was out of town. Deciding to do her own stunts, Minister Thompson faced the media for the first time in days with the assurance that students would be taught according to a 2014 curriculum -- which also does not exist.

Deputy Premier and former Tory leadership contender Christine Elliot attempted a rescue mission: "The requirement is that the [1998] curriculum be followed but, of course, there’s lots of student questions that come to teachers every day and, of course, a teacher is able to have a private discussion with a student to answer their questions."

This, of course, is all kinds of wrong. Teachers and union leaders have spoken out against this proposed practice. There have been calls to the Ontario College of Teachers for a response:

Silver lining: Mark this down as the only moment in eight years when Ontarians opposed to the curriculum and those in favour found common ground.
As absurd as the Deputy Premier's proposition sounds, it underscores how critically misunderstood the curriculum is, and why it is so important that we teach it to all students.

Let's Talk About Consent

Perhaps the most under-discussed item in the 2015 curriculum is that of consent. In the era of #MeToo, we are in the midst of a rethinking of relationships in every aspect of life, including schooling, and it's a been very public conversation -- which is why it may be working. Interestingly, the topic of consent in the Ontario health curriculum was brought to the fore by two young women, middle-schoolers Tessa Hill and Lia Valente, who produced the 2015 film Allegedly: Rape Culture in our Society as a school project.

While others were protesting the impending release of the 2015 curriculum, Lia and Tessa organized a petition in support of it, which garnered over 40,000 signatures, as well as an assurance from then-Premier Kathleen Wynne that consent would be part of the curriculum. The announcement gave Charles McVety of Canada Christian College, a new talking point -- that young children were being taught to consent to sexual advances of adults. Quoted in an article by the Toronto Sun's Joe Warmington, Mr McVety had this to say: 

“We abhor the premier announcing that Ontario’s teachers will be forced to teach little children how to give permission for that child to engage in sex” and “I don’t think it is legal to advise a child before the age of 16 on how to give sexual consent.
“To do so would be aiding and abetting a criminal activity, a child under 16 having sex.”
Of course, Mr McVety is talking nonsense. Consent, as taught to primary students, is very different from what is taught to students in intermediate grades, or secondary grades. However, if we do not teach children at a very young age that they have the right to enforce their own boundaries and the responsibility to respect other people's, we lack the foundations for later discussions, which can include sexual consent. It's not a conversation that should be delayed, or hidden from view.

Which brings us to a recent student-led protest in defense of the curriculum, March for our Education -- SAVE SEX ED, T&R. Co-organizer Rayne Fisher-Quann delivered an open letter to Premier Doug Ford:

My sister needed that curriculum when kids spent two years bullying her for her sexuality. They grew up thinking that being gay was wrong, and our school board never taught them otherwise.

I can’t even count the number of non-binary and trans friends who needed that curriculum so they could have given a name to what they were feeling so much earlier - so that they wouldn’t have felt alone and confused and scared for so many years of their lives.

You know who else needed that curriculum? The two hundred and seventy-five thousand Ontarian teenagers who were cyber-bullied in 2015. How could a curriculum created before MySpace possibly teach them anything they needed to know about the Internet?

I can go through my blocked list on instagram and show you exactly 284 boys who needed that curriculum to teach them the meaning of the word “no”. If that’s not enough for you, follow me down the street for an hour, and I’ll show you about 10 more. The first time I was sexually harassed by a classmate was in grade seven, and if you’d asked 12 year old Rayne what she thought, I’m sure she would have wished we’d learned about consent a little bit earlier, too.

So now we return to the Deputy Premier's preposterous idea that discussions that exceed the boundaries of the 1998 curriculum should be held in private. Not only is stigmatizing for students and risky for teachers; it prevents other students from hearing what needs to be said aloud. Imagine a classroom space in which young women like Rayne can share their truth. Where others can listen and relate, perhaps sharing their own stories. Where other still can re-examine their own behaviours and relationships.

What Ms Elliot, Ms Thompson, Mr Ford and others need to understand is that the outsourcing of consent solely to parental discussion at home, or private conferencing at school, means that many children who need to hear the stories of Rayne and her friends never will.


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

"But what about the Muslims?" Scapgoating Immigrants and People of Colour

About ten years ago, I was working in the library of a middle school when I was pulled into a conversation with a fellow teacher and an administrator. The former had told the latter that my library was in possession of a title that might not be appropriate for adolescent readers. I presume the purpose of the meeting was to summon me to my senses. Here's how it went:

"Mom and Mum are Getting Married!"
The offending title was a benign little picture book called Mom and Mum are Getting Married, one I've had in every school library I've run -- that's five and counting over eighteen years I've been an elementary teacher. Published in 2004 -- shortly after the State of Massachusetts equalized marriage rights, with Canada following suit -- it is the story of a little girl who's excited about her parents' wedding. I pointed out that the book was a needed recognition of diverse families in our schools, just like others I had about single-parent families, extended families, and the like.

"I don't think we even have any gay families in the school," offered the administrator.

"First," I replied, "What's a gay family? And how would we know that? We know what parents or guardians are responsible for children, but we have now way of knowing what their orientation is, or that of their children."

I knew what she meant, of course. Her hetero-normative assessment of families in our school was simple: She knew of no child with two mums or two dads; therefore, all our parents had to be straight. The kids, too. Then she dropped the big one:

"But what are our Muslim students going to read?"

(Keep in mind, these children were twelve to fourteen years of age.)

"They can read any book they want," was my reply. "It's a library. In a school. Where our job has always been to teach children about how different people live all over the world. They're Muslim; they're not made of glass. I find it troubling to assume that they or their families would automatically be opposed to learning about something because it might be different from what they are used to."

I stood my ground. The book remained.

Speakers at the student-led March For Our Education Toronto - SAVE SEX ED, T&R protest echoed concerns I've long held about scapegoating of religious minorities, people of colour, as well as recent immigrants, in the now-eight-year-long sex ed debacle. Co-organizer Frank Hong called out this exploitation:

"It is unfortunate that immigrant communities were so shamelessly manipulated by radical social conservatives. They were able to target each culture's weaknesses and stir up hatred and division all for their petty political goals. Shame on them for exploiting minority causing the situation of where we are today."

March for our Education co-organizers Frank Hong
and Rayne Fisher-Quann at Queen's Park. July 21, 2018. 

Backlash against the original curriculum in 2010 was driven largely by far right Christians -- the usual crowd: Charles McVety of Canada Christian College, Gwen Landolt of REAL Women of Canada, Jack Fonseca of Campaign Life Coalition, Teresa Pierre of Parents As First Educators. They were shrill, but they didn't really draw big crowds.

Enter the Thorncliffe Parents Association, a protest group that emerged in 2014, after then-Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that the 2010 curriculum was going to be making a comeback. The Thorncliffe Park community in the former Borough of East York is home to one of the largest elementary schools in North America -- so large, in fact, that when the Province of Ontario shifted from half-day to full-day Kindergarten, a separate building and school was created to accommodate them.

Languages most commonly spoken other than English at home are Urdu and Gurarati in the predominantly South Asian community. The neighbourhood had been at the centre of the controversy over Bill 13, The Accepting Schools Act, back in 2012. At that time, right wing activists had created boiler-plate "family spiritual values letters" -- downloaded by parents and submitted to schools. The letters enumerated topics parents deemed unacceptable for their children, and were sent to schools with the expectation that parents would be given advance notice. The letters, by the way, went nowhere -- school boards were adamant. A court case launched by Hamilton, Ontario, parent Steve Tsourloukis ultimately failed in its mission to make such letters a legal requirement of schools.

By the 2015-16 school year, when the curriculum was to be rolled out, parents in the community were already well-mobilized. Strikes ensued, in which parents kept kids home or sent them to makeshift lessons at a nearby park and community centre. Similar protests popped up in Peel and elsewhere. Horrendous tales of children being instructed to disrobe for lessons on anatomy circulated in fliers distributed in languages spoken at home.

Pressure was exerted on parents not to send their kids to school. A teacher in Thorncliffe told me that the school's principal had received a phone call from an anxious parent who said she couldn't get out of her building because protestors were blocking the front door. Teachers in several schools relate stories of parents keeping their kids home, not because they objected to the curriculum.

Because the parents didn't want their children witnessing the anger and shouting of the protest.

A community volunteer teaching Thorncliffe Park students in a nearby park.
I recall chatting with co-workers during the strikes. A fellow-teacher said to me of the parent protests in Thorncliffe Park, "But it's against their religion."

Let's pause to consider what might constitute it. A student having two parents of the same gender feeling welcome at school? A child worried over questions about their own gender identity? A student learning the correct name of all their body parts, including genitalia, in order to protect against inappropriate touching? Having the right to define personal boundaries? Learning to respect those of others? Learning that abstinence is the most surefire way of avoiding STIs and unplanned pregnancy, so long as one practises it? Learning that self-pleasuring is a normal expression of ones sexuality?

Any one of the above might be against somebody's religion -- or their interpretation of their religion -- but it also doesn't make any of above invalid. Education ministries, school boards and school staff are increasingly mindful of the ethno-cultural and religious diversity of the communities in which we work. Those of us who benefit from a system that rewards our own privilege have tried to attune ourselves to respect others who have not benefited similarly and who see the world differently. That's a good thing.

At some point, though, there are views we cannot accommodate.

This was brought home to me during a recent discussion with a school administrator about my work as a GSA leader. He explained quite calmly why such a group could never exist in his school. Don't get me wrong, was is message. I'm right there with you, but our Muslim parents wouldn't understand. He cited the protests I discussed above, parents permanently withdrawing their children from schools, and the peril to smaller schools where staff and community members fear that closure is imminent.

My response to him? "No child or family in your school can possibly against someone else's religion."

That, for instance, is not a reasonable accommodation.

On the other side of this coin is the exploitation of these communities that Frank Hong spoke about. Back in April of 2015, I wrote about one of several very large protests mounted against the curriculum. On the one hand, groups like the one in Thorncliffe were being presented as being grassroots. At the same time, traditional white, Christian organizers were becoming more present in the protests. This was the speakers list from one such event:

MyChildMyChoice committee organizers including Sam Sotiropoulos -- former TDSB Trustee who became famous for his appropriation of the word homosexist.

Teresa Pierre, Parents As First Educators -- Catholic parent advocate who's petitioned against GSAs, HPV shots, and OECTA at Pride. (Update: Tanya Granic Allen later became the leader of this group.)

Charles McVety, Institute for Canadian Values -- who's been staying away from public events on the sex ed curriculum until now.

Monte McNaughton, former PC Leadership contender -- used the curriculum to launch his campaign with an appearance on 100 Huntley Street.

Patrick Brown, PC Leadership contender (tentative due to schedule conflict)

Jack Fonseca, Campaign Life Coalition -- a frequent guest of the former Sun News Network.

Parents from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds -- I presume these are the grassroots folks.
Many of the above would continue in this fight. Mrs Granic Allen parlayed her activism into a shot at running for the Ontario PCs. Although Ford terminated her candidacy, I'm betting she comes back. Most disturbing was the presence of Charles McVety at these events. Mr McVety's television program was suspended from broadcast following a ruling by regulators regarding his statements on Islam and homosexuality.

My heart to hurts think of buses being sent out to various neighbourhoods, residents herded aboard, to ship them to Queen's Park to listen to Mr McVety lecture them.

Also worth noting is that among white Christian leadership of the anti-sex ed movement, we find a lot of support not only for Doug Ford, but also for Donald Trump, a President who actually tried to close the boarders to Muslims and referred to African countries as "shit holes."

PressProgress -- Doug Ford ally Charles McVety:
Teaching creationism in schools “sounds like a good idea”
Photo by Jennifer McVety, Facebook

The final word on this goes to advocate and educator Farrah Kahn of Ryerson University's Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education (OSVSE). As a queer Muslim woman, Farrah stands in stark contrast to the image of reflexive homophobia cast upon her community. Her concluding remarks: "Stop blaming Muslims [for the anti sex ed protest]. We didn't start it. It's everyone's problem."

Farrah Khan at Queen's Park. July 21, 2018.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

When White Privilege Becomes White Power

The story of York Region District School Board Trustee Nancy Elgie has taken some disturbing turns since the December 8th, 2016, revelation that she used the word "nigger" in reference to local parent. The remark was made privately, days before, at a public meeting where York Region parent Charline Grant was in attendance. Ms Grant previously had launched a human rights complaint, charging that her son had been the victim of racist treatment in his school. The private comment was soon reported to the parent, and the board initiated an investigation.

In the early stages, Mrs Elgie denied ever having made the remark. The Toronto Star's Kristin Rushowy and Noor Javed write:
Elgie, 82, could not be reached for comment on Thursday. However, reached at her home Wednesday, she told the Star “there is no merit in the accusation, but I will co-operate fully in the investigation.” 
When asked if she was denying having uttered the slur, she responded: “I’m not saying anything like that... I’m just saying there is no merit in the accusation.”
Trustee Elgie promised, nonetheless, that she would cooperate with the Board's investigation.

And the story went dark for better part of two months, when Krushowy and Javed reported on the Trustee's written apologies emailed to Ms Grant and others involved.
“There is no excuse for what I said, only the explanation that I was clumsily trying to refer to your concerns as reported in the media, not to you personally,” said Nancy Elgie of the incident last November when she referred to Charline Grant as a n-----, in public, after a meeting.
“As soon as my brain registered what I had said, I was overcome with shock and dismay. I felt heartsick and deeply ashamed to have said something so hurtful — even unintentionally — and so foreign to the values I have held throughout my entire life,” wrote Elgie, 82, who represents Georgina.
So a two-month investigation into the uttering of an anti-black racial slur went from Trustee Elgie's claim of "no merit in the accusation" to her being very sorry for having said it, but it was an accident.

So what happened during the two months of radio silence?

Toronto journalist Desmond Cole interviewed Charline Grant on his NewsTalk 1010 radio program, on January 22, 2017. Ms Grant explains that the board used its "Policy 240" to investigate the incident -- a policy normally reserved for staff involved in internal workplace matters, and which mandates no direct action, even in the event of a clear transgression. In other words, Trustee Elgie's apology is all Ms Grant, her family, and community may expect from the York Region DSB.

Here's the problem. This isn't an internal matter; it's a very public one, its disposition a matter of public interest. A trustee is not an employee. Trustees are elected officials, entrusted to set and maintain policy, oversee budgets, and supervise the board's director. At the community level, parents and other stakeholders look to trustees to be their voice in the boardroom and in the school. Principals and superintendents look to them to see that their schools get the resources they need from the board.

In this instance, the damage done by Trustee Elgie's words is by no means limited to Charline Grant and her family. YRDSB that has been the subject of other charges of anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. Parents in that community are concerned about the safety of their children in those schools.

This should be the story now, but it isn't.

Enter two of Mrs Elgie's adult children: Stewart Elgie and Alyson Harrison, both university professors, the latter a neuropsychologist. In a February 7th, 2017, op-ed piece for The Toronto Star, the siblings plead their mother's case:
Given the ugly legacy of racism in society, it is not surprising that many people were quick to assume the worst of Nancy, even discounting that she had suffered a head trauma several weeks earlier. Such words — even used accidentally — are painful and hard to forgive.
But since a person’s reputation and life’s work hangs in the balance, we ask you to consider a few facts, and then judge for yourself.

The Elgies recount their mother's October concussion, which, they explain, caused her to experience difficulties with words; her career as a child psychologist; as well as the admirable reputation of the late Robert Elgie, their father and a former Cabinet Minister in the Ontario Government.

Pushback on the piece was swift and angry -- necessarily so. Save for an acknowledgement of a "legacy of racism," the concerns of an entire community in York Region are set aside so that we may ponder a "reputation" that "hangs the balance." The article is essentially a character reference written by family members. A photo of Mrs Elgie, looking frail with her head wrapped in a bandage, appeals the reader's emotions. The writers' bona fides on display in the bio-line are an appeal to authority. 

Enter Kathy English, The Toronto Star's Public Editor, in an article dated February, 10th, 2017. Ms English responds to criticisms levelled of the Elgies' op-ed levelled by readers and Star staff:
The opinion article was wholly sympathetic to Nancy Elgie, as one would expect of an article written by her children.
But the reality is that the reason all the facts they recounted had not come out yet was because they themselves had chosen not to tell the reporters and had indeed asked the reporters not to report specific details of their mother’s head injury. When her children later decided to disclose more details, they opted to bypass the reporters who would have certainly asked them tough questions about why their mother had continued to work as a trustee. (Emphasis mine.)
Reporters ask questions. Reporters report facts. Expert opinion is sought from experts who are not attached to a story. People close to the story, like family members, don't get report. In that same newsroom, a family member or close friend of Nancy Elgie doesn't report the story. Anybody looking at this can see very plainly the op-ed was published because the Elgie name is a powerful legacy. 

Privilege. Power.

"But, it's an op-ed," you might say. Getting published on the op-ed page of a major newspaper, admittedly, is not something just anyone can do. The Op-Ed Editor looks for people who have expertise and a point-of-view. That point-of-view might conflict with the paper's position on the other side of the fold. The idea is to put out opinions from a credible source that allow the reader to see a story from many sides. The close relationship of the writers to the person they are writing about crosses a line. Their unwillingness to answer "tough questions" from reporters further undermines their credibility. The introduction of new information, apart from the head injury Mrs Elgie suffered, is impossible to independently verify; nor do we know whether it was brought to bear in the YRDSB investigation.

So I ask, where's Charline Grant's op-ed? Remember her? She was the York Region mom concerned about racism in her son's school. She's the parent Trustee Elgie was talking about when she uttered the slur. She is the face of people in that community who feel the sting of Trustee Elgie's words. The same people waiting for answers and action on anti-Black racism and Islamophobia in their schools.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Patrick Brown Flips on "Sex-Ed" Curriculum

A year after appearing to pledge support for revised sexual health components of Ontario's Health and Physical Education curriculum, Progressive Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown seems to have changed his mind. Mr Brown, who represents Simcoe North, recently distributed a letter promising to withdraw the curriculum if the Tories win a majority in a projected 2018 Provincial election. The release of the letter, which coincides with a byelection in Scarborough-Rouge River has been seen as a move to bolster the chances of Raymond Cho, the Tory candidate for the riding. Meanwhile, activists opposed to the curriculum had been hoping to make this a wedge issue in the election. Mr Brown's apparent change of heart is not really a surprise, but that's going to take some explaining.

We begin with Mr Brown, speaking to Toronto Life magazine in an article published July 29, 2015. When asked about his views on children learning about gender identity, given that he had voted against Trans rights legislation federally in 2011, the leader was concise: "I’m comfortable with teachings on sexual orientation and gender identity." In the same interview, he declined to go into specifics about what he did object to in the document. Still, this flies in the face of a statement made by Brown just last June, saying he would not withdraw the curriculum if his party formed the next government.

The grades one-to-eight curriculum, which had not been updated since 1998, was first introduced by the Liberal Government of Ontario under Dalton McGuinty in 2010. Conservative religious activists mobilized immediately, decrying lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity as age-inappropriate and counter to their religious beliefs. Premier McGuinty withdrew the document two days later, promising a "rethink." His successor, Kathleen Wynne reintroduced the curriculum in early 2015, insisting that it would be rolled out during the subsequent school year -- a year that was marked by protests, large and small, that seemed to fizzle by the spring of 2016.

Enter Scarborough-Rouge River independent candidate Queenie Yu, a local resident whose campaign website,, declares, "YU WILL FIGHT WYNNE'S SEX-ED AGENDA" at the top of every page. In an all-candidates Q&A with, Ms Yu cites withdrawing the curriculum in answer to a question on "What is the most important issue in Scarborough-Rouge River?":
The reason I am running is to remind voters of Wynne’s disastrous 2015 “sex-ed curriculum”.  The Liberals  - supported by the NDP - have introduced changes that are completely “age inappropriate”. Ontario schools are now teaching things to children at far too young an age. This “sexualization” of children has many parents very upset. Parents do not receive notice of when the material will be taught so they have no real chance to keep their children home that day. To protect our children, the Wynne sex-ed curriculum must be repealed. 
Ms Yu is not entirely correct. No, Ontario schools are not required to give advance notice of any instruction in curriculum. Further, the Ministry of Education has been clear there is no formal opt out for curriculum items that align with human rights, such as discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation. However, parents and guardians may indicate specific curriculum items they are concerned about to the school principal. This could give them the option of keeping their children home.

Which brings us back to Patrick Brown, a former Federal Conservative Party of Canada MP, whose successful Ontario Tory leadership bid drew praise from Campaign Life Coalition, and from Canada Christian College founder Charles McVety. Mr McVety, along with the late former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, had endorsed Monte McNaughton, who put the withdrawal of the curriculum and other socially conservative issues front and centre in his campaign. Mr McNaughton's campaign never lived to see the balloons blown up at the convention.

Even after winning the Tory leadership and his own seat, Patrick Brown stayed clear of the curriculum protests, leaving Mr McNaughton to tilt against sex-ed windmills. Eyebrows were likely raised when Mr Brown marched with the LGBTory Caucus in the 2015 Toronto Pride Parade -- a first for an Ontario Tory leader. 

Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown at
Toronto Pride Parade, 2015. Photo by Gordon Nore.
Ms Yu's campaign in Scarborough-Rouge has the backing of the self-described parental rights group Parents As First Educators. Though not a household name, PAFE has been prominent in the protest against the curriculum. Its president is Tanya Granic Allen, who has been a spokesperson for Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion group. From Ms Granic Allen's statement supporting Yu:
Kathleen Wynne refuses to listen to parents demands to withdraw her disastrous s/x-ed curriculum. The NDP and Liberals agree with Wynne. I'm afraid Patrick Brown hasn't been strong on the issue either. Brown pretended to disapprove of Kathleen Wynne's s/x-ed agenda in 2015. Now he says: " I wasn't pointing out specific criticisms at the curriculum." Where does Patrick Brown and PC Party really stand on this issue? We need to send a STRONG message to Kathleen Wynne and Patrick Brown that Ontario parents MUST be listened to. We are sick of the rhetoric- we demand action.
Patrick Brown to the rescue. As quoted in The Toronto Star newspaper, Mr Brown's letter reads, "I believe sex-ed is important, but it cannot be significantly changed without extensively consulting the primary educators of children, who have always been parents." All of this omits that the 2010 document was the result of considerable consultation. "That document," writes Kathryn Blaze Carlson for the National Post newspaper in 2011, "was based on a two-year consultation with 700 students, 70 organizations and more than 2,000 individuals."

In a protest that has been marked with fibs and fabrications that would make the Trump campaign blush, it's no accident Mr Brown's statements on the curriculum avoid any direct criticism of what is actually to be taught. Same for Queenie Yu's campaign website. Since the re-issue of the document in early 2015, leaders of local protests have warned of grade one children disrobing in class for lessons on body parts; children being "turned gay"; boys being told they are girls, and girls being told they are boys. The Ottawa Citizen newspaper's David Reevely summed it up nicely in his September 2015 piece: Sex-education protest organizers are just making things up now.

So why would Mr Brown speak out now? Scarborough-Rouge River has been a Liberal stronghold since it was created in 1999. Eyeing a 2018 general election, the Toronto east riding would make a nice trophy for the new Tory leader, but the Progressive Conservative candidate, Raymond Cho, has an uphill battle. While he is the current Toronto City Councillor for the riding, his previous aspirations to higher office in Scarborough-Rouge have not panned out -- that's two federal campaigns, running as a independent and a New Democrat; one provincial, as a Tory.

It seems unlikely that Queenie Yu will take the riding as an unknown independent, but in a tight race, running a single issue campaign, she might take single issue voters. Brown's letter offers them sanctuary in the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. His timing is impeccable (in a devious way), with the legislative assembly in recess, opposition MPPs won't be able to call him on the ploy before the September 1st, 2016, election is over. 

Additionally, Raymond Cho's campaign is co-chaired by former Toronto City Councillor Doug Ford, brother to the late Rob Ford. A win in Scarborough-Rouge is also a chance to revive FordNation in Toronto, as Mr Brown sets his sights on the 2018 election.

Whether or not this gambit gives Brown and the Tories a leg up in Toronto, news of the letter is being felt deeply by advocates for the curriculum. Doug Kerr is the founder of the Facebook group, People for Ontario's Sex-Ed Curriculum, which has networked parents, teachers and activists around the Province. "As a gay father with a child in the public school system," he says, "I'm incredibly disappointed. There was an opportunity for all parties to stand united in support of the curriculum, but instead Brown chose to side with anti-gay groups who are afraid of their kids learning about LGBT people. This is a disgusting attempt to throw out a divisive wedge issue just days before the byelection in Scarborough."

Pflag Toronto President Anne Creighton speaking at Toronto City Hall, 2015.
Background, LTR: Toronto Mayor John Tory,
City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, and NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo
Photo by Gordon Nore
Pflag Toronto President Anne Creighton agrees: "The new Health and Physical Education curriculum is a gift to children.  It tells them that they are ok even if they are different. That there's nothing wrong with being who they are. How can anyone see something sinister in that?"

Saturday, May 14, 2016

If You Give A Mouse A Cookie -- "Sanitizing" Sex-Ed

In a somewhat startling turn of events, it appears that a large number of grade one children in Thorncliffe Park are attending Health classes from the much-protested Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum. Here's a part of what they're learning, from the 2015 curriculum document:

Human Development and Sexual Health
  1. C1.3  identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology [PS] 
    Teacher prompt: “We talk about all body parts with respect. Why is it important to know about your own body, and use correct names for the parts of your body?” 
    Student: “All parts of my body are a part of me, and I need to know how to take care of and talk about my own body. If I’m hurt or need help, and I know the right words, other people will know what I’m talking about.” 
There's a catch.

Two different classes are being taught. One group of grade one children will learn the above. Another group, said to be about forty percent of grade one students at North America's largest grades 1-5 public school, will be taught the same lesson with the substitute terminology, "private parts," standing in for words like penis, vulva, vagina, and testicles.

Now here's the backstory.

Thorncliffe Park was, by any odds, the epicentre of parent protests against the revised curriculum that was re-released early last year. As protests in some areas of the GTA struggled to gather steam, Thorncliffe became the symbol of the campaign. A week-long "strike" of schools last spring saw ninety-percent of Thorncliffe students absent -- for a curriculum that would not be activated for many more months. An extended strike, beginning September of 2015 saw hundreds of students out of school for much of the fall season. Organizers, dubbing themselves Thorncliffe Parents Association, staged classes in a nearby park, and later in a community centre housed within the local library.

I attended their first protest in March of 2015, which was said to have drawn up to a thousand participants. The anger and vitriol of the crowd were palpable. Underpinning their efforts were preposterous assertions that Premier Wynne was planning to convert as many Ontarians as possible from heterosexual to homosexual, and that the curriculum document was a covert tool to sexualize children and make them vulnerable to pedophiles.

Thorncliffe Protest, March 14, 2015 -- Photo by Gordon Nore
Thorncliffe Park principal Jeff Crane had a crisis on his hands. Here he was, presiding over a vast inner-city school with a splendid reputation, and he was trying to convince parents to send their kids back to it. Mr Crane appeared in the media, explaining that the protests were driven by an extreme group of parents that he could not reach. Over the course of many weeks, he met with parents in small groups, going over the curriculum in detail. In time, the student population was mostly restored. Mostly, some students never returned, and the school's staff was reduced by three teaching positions.

And now the health curriculum rolls out.

In a May 13th article published The Toronto Star by education reporter Kristen Rushowey, Mr Crane explains how the compromise was reached: 
“We let parents know ahead of time when the health strands for human development were being taught and, for Grade 1, that there would be one lesson where there would be discussion of body parts … They were told if learning the names of genitalia was a concern, they could write me a letter requesting a religious accommodation,” said Crane, whose school is located in the riding represented by Premier Kathleen Wynne, who championed the updated health curriculum.
And this is where the story goes south. A number of critics of the revised curriculum are asking -- and it's a good question -- what does appropriate terminology have to do with accommodating religious beliefs? Again, the offending words from the document are vagina, vulva, penis and testicles. 

The rationale? Jeff Crane explains in the star article:
Crane said things like learning the names of body parts is a worry for Muslim parents in the school, “because, the way it has been explained to me, it’s a very modest culture, a modest religions, where speaking about anything to do with genitalia is something not brought up until children are older.”
Health education experts, law enforcement professionals, prosecutors, and the medical community agree that it is crucial that young children be able to describe accurately their genitalia as a line of defence against sexual assault. Children who can do so, it is believed, are better able to enforce no-touch boundaries and to report when these boundaries have been breached. Assigning non-specific terms to genitalia reinforces shame and secrecy, and also makes it much more difficult to interview a child who may have been victimized. 

According to some reports, children are most vulnerable to sexual assault between the ages of five and nine. Delaying this conversation because of modesty is a disservice. How many child sex abuse survivors do we need before this point gets across. Imagine a child being interviewed by a children's aid worker or detective: "I'm not allowed to talk about down there."

Alex McKay, Executive Director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, echoes the same concerns on CBC Toronto's Metro Morning program with Matt Galloway:

According to a spokesperson for Education Minister Liz Sandals was asked to comment for the Toronto Star story, “we value the full range of diversity among our students and aim to create safe, inclusive and accepting school environments that support the achievement and well-being of all students. We want students to be in the classroom and learning.”

So, the Ministry has nothing to say on the matter.

"If you give a mouse a cookie, 
he's going to ask for a glass of milk."

Sexual health educator Lyba Spring, also quoted in the Star, sees the thin edge of the wedge:
“They are already subverting the curriculum … what happens especially in Grades 5 and 6, when they are talking about sexual intercourse … because they are talking about the prevention of sexually transmitted infections? What happens as they are talking about consent? I can just see parents’ minds working, and at every step of the way, they will try and subvert and disrespect the curriculum.
“If schools ‘accommodate’ at this early stage in the game, they are setting themselves up for real battles later on, and the only ones who are going to suffer are the kids.”
Carly Basian, of My Sex Ed, agrees. From her Facebook post:
...who are these accommodations for? Parents. Who are we teaching? Not parents! Many students are curious about the new sex ed curriculum and are eager to learn. Of course, we must respect religious views and personal outlooks, but our curriculum is not offensive - it teaches students information that has been empirically supported (the revised curriculum was developed by experts in the field, including psychologists, experienced teachers and sex educators). Not to mention, a lot of the controversial topics (e.g. gender identity and sexual orientation) is something that is embraced and celebrated in Canada. We have laws protecting folks who identify on any part of the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity, so it is fitting to talk about it with our students - who are not exempt from falling somewhere along the aforementioned spectrum.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. A health curriculum is meant to teach children about their bodies. Their human bodies. Not Muslim bodies, or Christian bodies, or even atheist bodies. The normal growth and change in these bodies will proceed regardless of what language they speak at home; what house of worship they attend. In all the discussion of so-called "parental rights" vs educational expertise, there is one point that cannot be ignored. These children own their bodies and will have to live in them, regardless of many parents scream and yell at school buildings.