Senior ministry staff warned the education minister that rolling back the sex-ed curriculum could be perceived as “outdated” and “not serving the needs of today’s students,” an Ontario human rights tribunal heard Thursday.
That’s according to a document introduced as part of a human rights challenge launched by an 11-year-old transgender child who contends the province’s repeal of the 2015 Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum discriminates against LGBTQ students.
In a memo to Education Minister Lisa Thompson, dated July 25, 2018, assistant deputy ministers Martyn Beckett and Denys Giguère wrote about the “impacts” of quashing the 2015 HPE curriculum for elementary students, and replacing it with an interim one that included sex-ed material from 1998.
“There would be no mandatory learning of the following topics: consent, sexting, homophobia, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” wrote Beckett and Giguère.
They also pointed out that such a move “could be perceived by the public as outdated and not serving the needs of today’s students.” And, they noted, “some school boards have voiced their concern with utilizing sexual-health expectations from 1998.”
Nonetheless, in late August, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government moved ahead with an election promise and repealed the modernized HPE curriculum, which some social conservatives felt was not age appropriate. It was replaced with an interim document from 2010, which includes sex-ed material from 1998.
The government also launched an extensive public consultation process on a range of education issues and received about 72,000 submissions between September and December.
Beckett, who testified Thursday, said he and Giguère “wanted to be clear and transparent” with the minister about how the curriculum change would impact mandatory teaching expectations.
But, he added that just because topics are no longer deemed mandatory doesn’t mean teachers can’t teach them. He said “teachers have the ability to use their professional judgment … in how they wish to develop their lesson” and are free to teach about issues, such as gender identity, stereotypes and LGBTQ issues.
Teachers have a responsibility to ensure that all students feel “welcomed, included and celebrated,” he told the tribunal.
When asked why the province did not keep the 2015 curriculum in place while undertaking its consultation process, Beckett said the government was committed to giving Ontarians a voice.
The applicant in this human rights case is an 11-year-old identified only as AB. Last week, AB testified that the government’s rollback of the curriculum puts trans youth in the shadows.
AB’s lawyers Mika Imai and Marcus McCann argue that revoking an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and replacing it with a noninclusive one violates the human rights of LGBTQ students.
“We think this puts trans and queer youth at risk of being bullied and being harassed,” Imai told the Star, during a break in proceedings.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission has intervened seeking to protect the rights of girls and LGBTQ+ students, which it says are among the province’s most vulnerable and at-risk people. It also believes the interim curriculum does not properly address consent, putting students at greater risk of sexual violence.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and Justice for Children and Youth are intervenors in this case.
Lawyers for the government argue teachers have substantial discretion when it comes to delivering the interim curriculum and are allowed to use any resource they choose to help them design their lesson plans. Beckett said teachers can still use the 2015 curriculum as a resource — that document, however, is no longer available on the ministry website.
“Teachers are required to teach in an inclusive way,” said Beckett. “Teachers are to be mindful and inclusive of children in the community and in the province of Ontario.”
Although curriculum development typically takes about two years, Beckett said the province is committed to delivering a new HPE curriculum by September.
The matter is being adjudicated by Jennifer Scott and Brenda Bowlby.
Proceedings will resume Friday and closing arguments are scheduled for next week
The province is also facing a separate human rights challenge launched by two transgender teens, and legal challenges by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74