Canada: Ontario Government Extends Consultation Beyond Sex Education

Premier Doug Ford's campaign promise that he would consult widely on rewriting the controversial sex-education curriculum has been expanded into a broad review of the province's education system.

On August 22, 2018, the Conservative government announced that it was "respecting parents by holding unprecedented consultation into education reform."1

Starting in September, the province-wide public consultations are to include an online survey, telephone town halls in every region of Ontario, and a submission platform that will allow interested individuals and groups to present detailed proposals to the Ministry of Education.2

The scope of the consultation will include:

  • How to improve student performance in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math;
  • How schools are preparing students with in-demand job skills, whether it be by exposing them to opportunities in the skilled trades or giving them the opportunity to improve their skills in increasingly important fields like coding;
  • What more can be done to ensure students graduate with important life skills like financial literacy;
  • How to build a new age-appropriate health and physical education curriculum that includes subjects like mental health, sex-ed, and legalization of cannabis;
  • What measures can be taken to improve standardized testing; and
  • What steps schools should take to ban cellphone use in the classroom.

Elementary teachers are required to abandon the curriculum introduced by the Liberal government in 2015, which has been largely supported by educators and health groups, and revert back to old lesson plans.

On August 22, the Ministry of Education issued a revised interim health and physical education curriculum for Grades 1 to 8, which was used in the province between 1998 and 2014. High school students, however, will be taught the 2015 curriculum which was introduced by the Liberal government to address current issues, such as same-sex marriage, gender expression and cyberbullying.3

The Conservative government also unveiled a website called Fortheparents.ca that is "designed to give parents a portal to provide feedback about concerns related to the curriculum."

In the event that parents believe that a teacher is deliberately ignoring the curriculum, they are advised to contact the Ontario College of Teachers' Investigations and Hearings Department or file a complaint online.4

"We expect our teachers, principals and school board officials to fulfill their obligations to parents and children when it comes to what our students learn in the classroom", said Premier Ford. "We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games. And, make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act."5

To ensure that the rights of parents are respected throughout, the government will also begin drafting a Ministry of Education Parents' Bill of Rights. Parents will be asked what elements they want to see in the Bill of Rights as part of the province-wide consultation.

In addition, the Minister of Education announced that she would use her authority under the Ontario College of Teachers Act to strike a Public Interest Committee that will help inform the creation of the Parents' Bill of Rights. The Public Interest Committee will also ensure that curriculum-based misconduct issues are fairly dealt with at the college.6

Commentators criticized the creation of a "snitch line" as an attack against teachers. On social media, some critics called it a "witch hunt to scare teachers into compliance with the curriculum rollback."7

On Twitter, Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), which represents 83,000 public school teachers, wrote, "Doug Ford & the Minister of Ed calling on parents to file complaints against Teachers. Unprecedented, outrageous, and shameful!  This is a blatant attack on the professionalism... of teachers."

In a statement, Hammond said the government is "manufacturing a crisis", rather than tackling real issues, such as the underfunding of schools.

"Teachers, education professionals and principals have regular communication and relationships with parents and students that have worked well," he said. "Having a Ministry of Education 'snitch line' that bypasses the systems already in place to deal with issues at the school level will prohibit parents and educators from addressing classroom concerns constructively,  as we've seen from social media, anonymous portals and comment threads are toxic and counter-productive to improving any situation, in this case school culture."8

On September 4, 2018, ETFO launched a legal challenge against the government's decision to replace the 2015 sexual-education curriculum. ETFO stated that it is seeking an injunction to keep the 2015 curriculum in place and to stop the implementation of the government's "snitch line".

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, and Beverley Eckensweiler, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association, confirmed that there is already a good process in place for parents to make complaints. First, parents speak with the teacher, then the school principal and then the school board official. If the issue has not been addressed, then the complaints go to the Ontario College of Teachers.9

In response to this new government initiative, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has commenced a legal action against the Ontario government in an attempt to stop what it calls "discriminatory" changes to the sex-education curriculum for elementary students.10

The association, which filed its claim on August 23, 2018, is seeking a court order as early in the school year as possible to maintain the previous sex-education curriculum until a new one can be developed through public consultation.

The court challenge is the second attempt to find a legal mechanism to stop the Conservative government from dropping the 2015 curriculum. Representing an 11-year-old transgender girl, Toronto lawyer Marcus McCann filed a complaint in early August, 2018 under Ontario Human Rights Code.

"The 2015 curriculum included information about her identity and her body," Mr. McCann said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, referring to the 11-year-old, "and that's now been removed. That's a breach of the code, because her non-trans peers will still get access to information about their identities and their bodies."11

On September 17, 2018, a second human rights case was launched against the Ontario government by two transgender teenagers regarding the use of an outdated sex-education curriculum. The two students, aged 15, alleged that using a 1998 curriculum which does not implicitly refer to LGBTQ youth means that teens like them are no longer reflected in the classroom. The students argued that this change could lead to an unwelcoming, even "hostile", school environment. One of the students named Ryan stated, "In my mind, the most important thing is the lack of inclusion."

In a letter to teachers on August 24, 2018, John Malloy, the director of education of the Toronto District School Board, said that the TDSB will continue to support teachers through the tumultuous changes in Ontario's education system. He stated that many important topics are still addressed in the interim sex education curriculum issued by the Conservative government.12

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Mr. Malloy said that the wording in the interim document may differ from the 2015 curriculum, but some important topics are generally covered as "prompts", references that support teachers in providing fact-based answers to students.13

TDSB staff are reviewing curriculum documents and organizing resources "as an attempt to take the 'guess work' out of determining what can be taught and when."14

Mr. Malloy said that while the Ministry of Education "has the right to set the curriculum for Ontario students", educators are responsible for how it is taught.15

Polls have consistently shown that more Ontarians support the 2015 curriculum than oppose it. Commentators have been critical that the ministry has announced no timeline for introducing a suitable replacement. Some critics have indicated that the Minister of Education should have found ways to preserve useful parts of the 2015 curriculum until her promised consultation has been completed. The question arises as to whether the Ontario government has made an already controversial issue more divisive.

Footnotes

1 Caroline Alphonso and Justine Giovannetti, "Ford extends education consultation beyond sex ed; Ontario will seek input on Math, legal cannabis, standardized testing and cellphone bans in schools," The Globe and Mail, August 23, 2018.

2 Office of the Premier, "Ontario Government for the People Respecting Parents by Holding Unprecedented Consultation into Education Reform", News Release, August 22, 2018.

3 Isabel Teotonio, "Outrage over Ford's sex-ed 'snitch-line': New hotline to report teachers who defy lesson rollback called 'shameful'," Toronto Star, August 23, 2018.

4 Office of the Premier, "Consultation into Education Reform," Backgrounder, August 22, 2018.

5 Office of the Premier, op. cit., footnote 2.

6 Office of the Premier, op. cit., footnote 4.

7 Teotonio, op. cit., footnote 3.

8 Teotonio, op. cit., footnote 3.

9 Teotonio, op. cit., footnote 3.

10 Sean Fine and Caroline Alphonso, "Civil liberties group mounts legal challenge to Ford's sex-ed overhaul," The Globe and Mail, August 23, 2018.

11 Ibid.

12 Caroline Alphonso, "Toronto board marshalling resources from teachers under new sex-ed curriculum," The Globe and Mail, August 24, 2018.

13 Ibid.

14 The Canadian Press, "Head of Toronto school board reassures teachers on interim sex-ed curriculum," August 25, 2018.

15 Ibid.

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