With advanced technology accessible to children in Canada, they are able to search whatever they want online. And they do.
“If you look at the statistics, by the time kids have reached 11 years of age they have witnessed, seen, been exposed to pornography,” said Laurie Betito, a clinical psychologist specializing in sexuality. “If we don’t give them what the realities are, what the facts are, they think that’s sex.”
The effects of early exposure to pornography can be damaging to children in the long term. According to a number of studies, seeing sexual acts performed with no prior education can lead to early sexual behaviour, which may result in high-risk sexual behaviours or sex addiction.
Ontario catches up
Until recently, all Canadian provinces except two had mandatory sex education included in their curricula. But this past fall, the colour of the leaves wasn’t the only thing to change in Canada. Ontario put its revised health and physical education curriculum, which includes sex education, into action.
“The health and physical education curriculum that was being used was more than 15 years out of date, and drafted long before the existence of Facebook or Snapchat became part of everyday life,” Gary Wheeler, senior media relations coordinator at the Ontario Ministry of Education, told Ricochet in an email. “Ontario was behind provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia in teaching our students about topics such as online safety, healthy relationships and consent.”
Before amending the program, the ministry says consultations were held with thousands of parents from across Ontario’s 4,000 elementary schools and with various community groups.
“Face-to-face meetings with organizations such as People for Education, Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education, and the Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations were also held,” said Wheeler.
Protests and accommodations
But for some Ontario parents, this wasn’t enough. The decision to update the program sparked multiple protests, and three teachers lost their jobs when some parents refused to send their kids to school. The public reaction forced the ministry to eliminate the mandatory nature of the curriculum.
“School boards have the authority and flexibility to address individual requests for accommodations and exemptions from curriculum and classroom activities in accordance with their local policies and individual circumstances,” said Wheeler.
Quebec hasn’t seen government-regulated sex education in schools for the past 10 years. Consequently a number of community groups have stepped in to fill the education gap. Their goal is to provide a safe space for children to ask questions, and they argue that there’s no place for parents in the classroom.
“We’ve never had any complaints from parents, and I’m sure the kids go home and tell their parents what they’ve learned,” said Amy Fleischer, a sex educator at the Trevor Williams Kids Foundation in Montreal. “But in terms of engaging the parents, it’s not the forum to do that.”
Only months after Ontario jumped on the sex education bandwagon, Quebec did too. But Quebec’s program is a mandatory pilot project that lasts two years. Covering 15 schools, including three English ones, across the province, roughly 8,000 students will be part of the program. Three months after the announcement in August, the education ministry revealed the details of the project, which are similar to what’s offered in Ontario, if less detailed
“The goal of the pilot project is to teach content that is specifically defined for each year, from kindergarten through to the end of secondary school, in order to ensure that all students acquire important learning related to sexuality education,” said Pascal Ouellet, director of communications at the Quebec Ministry of Education in an email statement.
Teachers call for more training
The ministry says it has offered the necessary training to teachers and will continue to do so.
“In September we offered the first training session to administrators of the pilot schools and to the school board resource persons who are supporting the pilot schools,” said Ouellet. “All persons concerned were present. Other training sessions will be held during the coming year. These training sessions will deal with the learning content, which has been posted on the [ministry] website.” As in Ontario, the decision to implement this project in Quebec does not have unanimous support from the public. But in Quebec, it’s mainly the teachers who are opposed to teaching a subject they say the ministry is not providing enough training in.
“We need psychology training, sex education training, many more hours of training and that’s not the case. There’s no money right now for training,” said Nathalie Morel, vice president of the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement, one of Quebec’s largest teachers’ unions. “The ministry is telling us one person from the school board will be trained, so if we have any questions we can call them or we can listen to some online training. It’s not enough.”
But the training method doesn’t differ too much from Ontario’s, and the teachers there are happy with it.
“The Ministry of Education provides regional face-to-face and online implementation training sessions for school board teams on new curriculum. All boards are responsible for sharing information and building capacity with their teachers through a variety of means,” said Wheeler.
But an issue specific to Quebec is the fact that the project isn’t part of the curriculum. The pilot project requires teachers to teach an extra five hours a year at the elementary level and an extra 15 hours a year at the high school level, which is time, they argue, they don’t have.
“We think it’s very dangerous because it gives us a security that sex education will be taken care of, but it’s not going to be taken care of,” said Morel. “It’s a way for the ministry to take care of sex education and then they will tell the population that they introduced sex education in the schools but it’s not the case. We have to take time away from other courses.”
Riverview Elementary School is one of the two English schools in Montreal that volunteered to take on the pilot project, but the school hasn’t begun teaching the curriculum to its students.
“The classroom teachers are open to it,” said Debi Dixon, the principal at Riverview, in a phone interview. “But they want to make sure that they are fully prepared, and that’s why they will be doing the training.”
Another issue is the school still hasn’t received the necessary teaching materials.
“We are still waiting for the English translation of the material, so we can’t move forward until we receive that,” said Dixon.
Regardless of how it’s implemented, some argue that sex education is vital for children across the country and parents should be supportive.
“We don’t consult parents on what’s being taught in science or math. This is a fundamental part of education,” said Betito. “I think parents panic because they’re afraid that teaching them, and giving them knowledge, means giving kids the okay to act on it, and that isn’t what’s happening here.”
In Quebec, those who disagree with the pilot project have to make their voices heard by 2017, when the project could become permanently mandatory if deemed successful by the ministry.