TORONTO – Doug Ford moved to appease social conservative voters on Tuesday, vowing to scrap and replace the Liberal government’s sex-ed curriculum days after dropping one of its staunchest opponents as a candidate in the spring election.
The Progressive Conservative leader also said he’d tie post-secondary funding to free speech as he announced three education pledges ahead of Wednesday’s official start to the campaign.
Several Canadian campuses have seen incidents recently in which controversial speakers or professors have come under fire for their views. One of the most publicized was that of Lindsay Shepherd, a Wilfrid Laurier University teaching assistant who was chastised for airing a clip featuring professor Jordan Peterson, who has refused to use gender-neutral pronouns and has become a hero of the free speech movement.
Ford did not provide details on how his proposed process would work, but said universities are supposed to be a place where people exchange ideas and too many schools are putting limits on that.
“We will ensure that publicly funded universities defend free speech for everybody,” Ford said.
“But we have to remember that free speech is not an invitation to be reckless or hurtful and it all comes down to respect.”
Emmett Macfarlane, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, said free speech on campus has become a far right issue by virtue of the fact that most of the controversies have involved people with far right views.
Ford likely picked core social conservative issues to talk about Tuesday after dropping candidate Tanya Granic Allen over the weekend, he said.
“I think he’s entering the proper campaign on the tail end of possibly angering some segment of his base with dismissing Granic Allen’s candidacy,” Macfarlane said. “It seems like there was a decision made here to emphasize those kind of meat and potato conservative issues.”
The sex-ed curriculum sparked controversy, particularly among social conservatives, when the Liberal government introduced it in 2015. It was the first time the curriculum had been updated since 1998 and included warnings about online bullying and sexting, but protesters zeroed in on discussions of same-sex marriage, masturbation and gender identity.
“For too long the Liberals have ignored Ontario parents,” Ford said Tuesday. “They have introduced the sex curriculum based on ideology – a curriculum that teaches sensitive topics starting at an early age.”
Ford said a Tory government would restore the old sex-ed curriculum until a new “age-appropriate” one could be installed.
He said in a news release that under Premier Kathleen Wynne “schools have been turned into social laboratories and our kids into test subjects for whatever special interests and so-called experts that have captured Kathleen Wynne’s ear.”
Ford wouldn’t say what parts of the sex-ed curriculum he takes issue with, only that parents were not consulted enough.
The policy pledge, which he has previously spoken about, came shortly after he dropped Granic Allen, an anti-sex-ed advocate, as a candidate when homophobic statements she made were brought to light by the Liberals. She had also run for the party leadership and threw her base of social conservative support to Ford.
Granic Allen called her removal a “betrayal” of social conservatives, and she said she hoped Ford would at least promise to repeal and replace the sex-ed curriculum.
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Liberal campaign co-chair Deb Matthews said the timing of Ford’s sex-ed announcement is “curious.”
“I think it’s a big mistake,” she said. “It is not evidence-based, and he’s trying to figure out how to keep social conservatives in his party while he turfs out Tanya and maybe others.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also criticized Ford’s pledge, saying the old curriculum the Tory leader is vowing to bring back was the same one in place when her now 25-year-old son was in school.
“There’s no doubt that curriculum needed to be upgraded, New Democrats supported that,” she said. “I think Mr. Ford may be considering dragging our province backwards.”
Ford also promised he would scrap and replace Ontario’s “discovery math” curriculum. With half of Ontario’s Grade 6 students not meeting a provincial math standard, schools need to get back to the basics, he said.
“Kids used to learn math by doing things like memorizing a multiplication table and it worked,” Ford said. “Instead, our kids are left with experimental discovery math. That hardly teaches math at all. Instead, everyone gets a participation ribbon and our kids are left to fend for themselves.”
In April 2016, Ontario announced a three-year, $60-million math strategy that puts an average of 60 minutes per day of “protected math learning time” in the curriculum for students between Grade 1 and Grade 8.
The following year, only half of students in Grade 6, and 62 per cent of those in Grade 3 met the provincial standard in math. The dismal results prompted Wynne to announce the province would look at overhauling its math education program.
A spokesman for Ontario’s education minister said the curriculum gives students a balanced math program.
“Bottom line is students are already learning their multiplication and division skills in Ontario’s classrooms,” Richard Francella said in a statement.