At a hastily arranged media conference on April 22, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty surprised everyone by pulling the plug on a proposed and highly controversial new sex education curriculum. In doing so, he jettisoned a curriculum two years in the making, caught his own cabinet off-guard, and left an army of educational experts in a tizzy.
Over the previous few days, news of the proposed changes had hit the media, causing uproar. Many Ontarians expressed utter shock about the more detailed, explicit sex-ed curriculum. While intended to promote tolerance and to address sensitive issues, it would have, for the first time, taught Grade 3 pupils about sexual identity and orientation and introduced Grade 6 and 7 children to terms such as “anal intercourse” and “vaginal lubrication.” It’s little wonder that the proposed curriculum aroused intense opposition in Ontario among Muslims and Christians as well as conservative family values groups.
A pan-Canadian survey of provincial sex-education curricula featured in the Globe and Mail was quite revealing. The British Columbia curriculum is the most liberal in orientation and touches on sexuality in every grade, starting in kindergarten. Talk about sex in Alberta classrooms begins in Grade 4, but there is no mention of homosexuality or sexual orientation from K through Grade 9.
Back in 2005, New Brunswick attempted to introduce a more explicit sex-ed curriculum and ended up backtracking. Sex first comes up in Grade 5, not Grade 3, and plans to introduce topics such as masturbation and anal sex in Grade 6 were subsequently dropped from the N.B. plan.
When McGuinty shelved the Ontario sex-ed reform, he felt the sting of the “revenge of the experts.” In subsequent news stories, Dr. Susan Pinker and a band of health education specialists expressed utter dismay over the killing of the new sex-ed curriculum. They blamed the whole controversy on the Ontario Christian coalition, led by evangelist Charles McVety. The not-so-subtle message: The experts are right, the public is simply ill-informed.
Then came a surprising new revelation. Ontario’s Catholic schools were never on board with the explicit sex-ed curriculum and had sought exemption from the whole program. Catholic officials found the proposed changes “quite controversial” and balked at Grade 3 “sex talks,” insisting that discussing sexual identities (i.e. homosexuality) be deferred until Grade 7 or 8.
Without advising McGuinty, Ontario educrats had quietly agreed to allow Catholic schools to opt out of the new, explicit sex-ed curriculum. Indeed, the plan was to permit a “separate” version of the program.
What really happened, and what are the lessons to be learned? McGuinty’s political instincts may well have been influenced by his Catholicity. He may also have gotten wind of the side deal. Whether he did or not, it is becoming increasingly clear that the opposition was much broader and deeper than the “experts” acknowledged when they tried to pin it all on the pastor and his flock.
The recent sex-ed “crisis” exposed the many layers of complexity that underlie educational policy making. The experts clearly secured control of the elaborate policy development process, and the educrats cut a deal to take the Catholics out of the picture. In pushing the boundaries, the ill-fated curriculum was actually promoting liberal humanist values now at odds with growing numbers of parents with more traditional, spiritually-based values.
The deeper you look, the easier it is to fathom “Premier Dad’s” decision. You also see why he is a survivor in Ontario politics.
The Mark News is Canada’s online forum for opinion and analysis.