TORONTO – Lawyers for a transgender girl fighting the Ontario government’s repeal of a modernized sex-ed curriculum argued Monday that the move has put their 11-year-old client in harm’s way because her classmates won’t be required to learn about gender identity.
In opening arguments at Ontario’s human rights tribunal, they said the Progressive Conservative government’s decision to roll back a version of the curriculum developed in 2015 in favour of one that does not include the word “transgender” suggests to the girl that her body is wrong.
The government argues that the curriculum currently being used by schools – which is based on one from 1998 – is not discriminatory, saying teachers are free to expand on what’s required by the document. A new curriculum is currently under development.
Lawyer Mika Imai said her client, a sixth-grader identified only as AB from small-town Ontario, was “extremely upset” when she learned that the modernized curriculum brought in by the previous Liberal regime was being scrapped.
“AB felt that the minister was putting trans students in the shadows,” Imai said.
The girl is being subjected to unequal treatment because those who are not transgender will learn about their sexual orientation in class while AB and others like her will not, Imai contended.
“No matter what happens this spring in AB’s sex-ed class, unlike her straight, cisgender peers, she is put in the position of fearing what will happen,” she said. “AB is scared of what will be said about her body, and whether her teacher will step in if kids tease her.”
Imai added that the tribunal will hear from experts, who will say that if kids don’t learn about queer and transgender people, they are more likely to bully their LGBTQ classmates.
And she said that the negative effects of the sex-ed curriculum repeal have already begun to play out for AB.
“AB has also already received negative messaging from the minister: that her body is wrong, that she doesn’t deserve to be taught about her body, that her peers don’t need to be taught about her body and that she doesn’t deserve to be protected from bullying,” Imai said.
Lawyers for the government argued that teachers make their own lesson plans, and language in the introduction of the curriculum opens the door for them to discuss LGBTQ issues.
They pointed to a line in the current curriculum that emphasizes the need for teachers to provide a physically and emotionally safe environment for learning “by emphasizing the importance of safety in physical activity, treating students with respect at all times, being sensitive to individual differences … and providing an inclusive learning environment.”
“This is not a script,” government lawyer Michael Dunn said of the curriculum. “There is not a list of prohibited words or phrases … Teachers are left to exercise professional judgment. The curriculum is a starting point.”
But interveners in the case – including the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, which represents the tens of thousands of primary school teachers in the province – argue that is not the case.
The federation said the fact that the government set up a so-called “snitch line” for parents to report teachers who are providing information not in the current curriculum means that the province was trying to mandate that students not learn about LGBTQ issues.
Dunn said the actual evidence of what goes on in AB’s school doesn’t bear out the argument that she faces discrimination, and that much of her lawyers’ argument is based on speculation and hypothesis.
He urged the adjudicators hearing the case to make a decision based only on the facts, and called for them to uphold the current version of the sex-ed curriculum as non-discriminatory.
The tribunal is set to hear the case over 10 days, with a decision planned for sometime in the spring.
The repeal of the modernized curriculum is also being fought in a separate court challenge. The case before the human rights tribunal, however, focuses solely on the repeal’s effect on LGBTQ students.