TORONTO – The Ontario government is discriminating against LGBTQ students by repealing a modernized sex-education curriculum that gave teachers and children the tools needed for an inclusive classroom experience, parents and lawyers said Thursday as they announced plans to launch a human rights case over the issue.
The Progressive Conservatives are replacing the curriculum with a version developed in 1998 while they carry out consultations for a new lesson plan. The move, announced soon after Premier Doug Ford took power in June, was the fulfillment of a hot-button election campaign promise.
Six families plan to file a case with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in the next week, noting that the old version of the curriculum makes no mention of issues such as gender diversity or the rights of LGBTQ students.
The government’s decision to repeal the modernized curriculum violates the province’s human rights code and should be declared unlawful, their lawyers said.
“That’s going to have a huge impact on, particularly, LGBTQ students,” said Mika Imai, one of the two lawyers shepherding the case through the tribunal process. “We see that as discriminatory and contrary to the code.”
The lead applicant in the case is an 11-year-old transgender student due to start Grade 6 in September. Submissions from parents and other students will also be included.
Imai said the province’s modernized curriculum, implemented by the then-Liberal government in 2015, made a noticeable difference for students.
Lawyers said that although issues around gender expression did not surface in the curriculum until Grade 3 and were not directly discussed until Grade 8, the mere fact that they were present sent a concrete message of acceptance to LGBTQ students of all ages and instilled greater empathy in their peers.
The curriculum also gave teachers tools to answer questions, guide discussions, and otherwise provide support when issues related to gender or sexuality arose, Imai said.
Parents noticed an immediate difference in their kids when the modernized curriculum, which also tackled issues such as sexual consent and cyberbullying, came into effect, Imai said.
“Before this curriculum came in place, their kids were getting bullied, no one knew what to make of them,” she said. “There was a real sea change when the 2015 curriculum came into place. Suddenly these conversations had to happen.”
Jake Somerville, a parent from Guelph, Ont., credits the 2015 curriculum for making his daughter’s gender transition almost “seamless.”
His child never experienced the old curriculum, but encountered acceptance and support when she began identifying as a girl in her classroom.
“All the other children had questions right away, so (teachers) pulled out some children’s literature that would address my daughter’s transition,” he said. “It was great because we found immediately that the children understood what was going on and no longer had really serious questions. They kind of became instant allies to her.”
Education Minister Lisa Thompson did not directly comment on the pending human rights case, which Imai said she hopes to expedite in order to have it heard before the school year begins.
But Thompson defended the old curriculum as adequate to prepare students for “the realities of today” and said the government’s parental consultation process will allow anyone with concerns to weigh in.
“I certainly hope everyone who wants to raise their voice takes note that I am inviting them all to be engaged in this consultation,” she said.
The families behind the human rights challenge are the latest to speak out against the Tories’ decision to revert to the 1998 curriculum.
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Earlier this week, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. delivered a petition to the legislature signed by nearly 1,800 doctors, nurses, social workers and other health care providers. The document said repealing the modernized curriculum puts children’s health at risk by denying them key information about concepts such as consent, safety and inclusivity.
The updated sex-ed curriculum included warnings about online bullying and sexting, but opponents, especially social conservatives, objected to the parts of the plan addressing same-sex marriage, gender identity and masturbation.
During the campaign, Ford accused the Liberals of introducing a sex-ed curriculum based on ideology, saying they had turned schools into social laboratories and kids into test subjects. He promised a Tory government would replace the curriculum with a teaching plan that was “age appropriate.”
More than two dozen school boards in the province have expressed concerns about the government’s plan, with some saying teachers will continue to discuss the issues included in the modernized curriculum in their classrooms.