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Sex-ed rollback, launch of snitch line, created ‘chill’ among teachers, court hears

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Ontario’s elementary teachers are legally challenging the rollback of the modernized sex-ed curriculum because it has caused a “chilling effect” among educators and put students at risk of harm, a court heard Wednesday.

Lawyers for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), a union representing 83,000 educators, say the repeal of the 2015 Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum, and the creation of a website for parents to report non-compliant teachers, was unconstitutional.

Teachers take part in a rally at Queens Park to protest the rollback of the modernized sex-ed curriculum in August. Ontario elementary teachers have taken the government to court over the rollback, saying it deprives students of important information and puts them at risk.
Teachers take part in a rally at Queens Park to protest the rollback of the modernized sex-ed curriculum in August. Ontario elementary teachers have taken the government to court over the rollback, saying it deprives students of important information and puts them at risk.  (Eduardo Lima / Star Metro File Photo)

“This case is not about the curriculum, it’s about the directive and the reporting site,” said ETFO lawyer Adriel Weaver in Divisional Court. She said there’s been a “chill” among teachers making them afraid to teach the 2015 curriculum, which ultimately deprives students of information, putting them at risk.

ETFO lawyers say the directive by the Progressive Conservative government violates the rights of teachers by limiting their freedom of expression, and the rights of students.

The two-day hearing is tackling two separate legal challenges to the province’s rollback of the 2015 curriculum, which included such topics as same-sex relationships, consent and gender identity. The other application was made by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). Both groups want the government directive quashed, but the province, which will make its arguments Thursday, says the applications should be dismissed.

In August, Premier Doug Ford scrapped the 2015 HPE curriculum for elementary grades because some social conservatives felt it wasn’t age appropriate. It was replaced with a curriculum issued in 2010, which contains sex-ed material from 1998. At the time, he warned teachers who did not comply would face repercussions, saying: “Make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act.” His government also launched a website called ForTheParents.ca, which some critics likened to a snitch line.

ETFO says the reporting website, which is no longer active, had the effect of intimidating teachers, constraining their professional judgment, and ensuring students don’t learn the 2015 curriculum.

The panel of three judges asked the ETFO lawyers if any teachers had been disciplined or if they had any data, or teacher surveys, indicating a chill effect. But they did not.

Prior to proceedings, Cindy Gangaram, a co-applicant in the ETFO challenge, told reporters she has experienced a chill effect, saying the directive “coerces me as a teacher to not teach important topics that had been included in the repealed 2015 curriculum.”

Lawyers representing the CCLA and co-applicant Becky McFarlane, who’s a queer parent of a sixth grader, focused their arguments on the curriculum change. They say the interim curriculum doesn’t include sexual orientation, gender identity and same-sex relationships, which alienates the LGBTQ+ community and violates their constitutional right to equality.

Stuart Svonkin, who represents the CCLA and McFarlane, said the directive is discriminatory against those who are LGBTQ+ because they have been “erased” from the curriculum. When the judges asked if there had been an infringement of rights during all those years when that sex-ed material was taught, from 1998 to 2014, Svonkin replied, “The world has changed … The Human Rights Code has changed.”

His comments were echoed, in part, outside the courthouse by Michael Bryant, executive director of the CCLA.

“The official curriculum in Ontario has been changed — it used to be diverse and now it’s heterosexual only,” he told reporters. “Obviously, this is about homophobia. If the government is going to be homophobic with its curriculum, you can bet the Constitution will have something to say about that.”

According to court documents filed by the province, sexual health topics in school are not matters of constitutional law. Furthermore, their lawyers argue that teachers have a great deal of discretion when it comes to lesson plans and have a duty to teach in a way that’s inclusive of all students, including LGBTQ+.

Outside court, ETFO president Sam Hammond told reporters the province is being hypocritical, by saying teachers have discretion when the government issued a warning to them and created a “snitch line to solicit complaints.”

“Thousands of frustrated Ontarians have called for the reinstatement of the (2015 curriculum), he said. “We have collected thousands of petition signatures calling for the sexual health component of the 2015 curriculum to be restored.”

The province recently wrapped up a public consultation on education issues, which will inform its creation of the next HPE curriculum to be issued for the next academic year. Between September and December, it received 72,000 submissions through web surveys, online comments, and telephone town halls.

At Queen’s Park, Progressive Conservative MPP Paul Calandra (Markham-Stouffville) said the government is “fairly confident” it will win the case.

Calandra noted the Tories consulted the public extensively as it prepares to revamp the health curriculum.

“I never in my wildest imagination thought that there would be 72,000 engagements in the process. It has gone very, very well,” he said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, NDP MPP Terence Kernaghan (London North Centre) said when children see themselves reflected in the curriculum, they “thrive both educationally and socially.”

“By deliberately removing LGBTQ identities and families from the curriculum, the Ford Conservatives put students at risk,” Kernaghan, the NDP’s critic for LGBTQ issues, said in a statement. “Any person, and any parent of a child who’s been a victim of cyber bullying, a survivor of sexual violence, or subjected to discrimination because of their LGBTQ identity, can tell you how devastating it is for a child’s mental and physical health to be denied information, empowerment and a safe space.”

With files from Robert Benzie

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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