Sex-ed controversy exposes how different religions, cultures fit into Ontario’s mainstream: Cohn

Much has been written — and shouted — about an updated sex education curriculum that leaves many Ontarians all hot and bothered.

But even more has been left unsaid. And it’s time to say it.

This isn’t about different views of sex. It’s about how different cultural and religious viewpoints fit into Ontario’s secular mainstream and publicly funded schools.

It’s an awkward manifestation of the recurring debate over so-called reasonable accommodation, which has a way of getting away from us. Especially when politicians get in on the action.

The latest controversy tells us more about the complexities of social discourse than sexual intercourse.

Should a minority movement be able to impose its own viewpoint — and veto — on the majority? Thousands of protesting parents withdrew their children from all classes earlier this month to protest future sex education classes, but let’s be clear on what they are demanding — and what they aren’t.

They are not merely trying to keep their kids out of sex-ed classes. They already have the right — rightly or wrongly — to deprive their children of a curriculum that teaches them how to protect themselves from sexual infections.

Anyone can claim an exemption currently. No, what these parents are fighting for is a veto on all other children benefiting from updated sex-ed classes that the protesters might disagree with — even if the majority of Ontarians support a modernized curriculum.

Consider this analogy: In some GTA schools, parents regularly withdraw their children from dance and music classes they deem to be in conflict with their faith. What if those parents demanded that all music and dance classes be banned in our schools?

An absurd notion — it would never happen — yet the latest wave of protests against sex-ed has taken on that character: Not only shall the protesters’ children not be exposed to updated sex-ed classes, neither should anyone else’s.

No matter that the 240-pages of turgid material does not provide masturbation lessons in Grade 6 (it merely offers basic teacher prompts in case kids raise the subject), or that it does not extol anal sex but rather alerts students to the risks. Never mind that the curriculum was assembled after consultations with hundreds of pedagogical experts (and thousands of parents from school councils), and that it mirrors similar updates in places like Alberta.

Forget all that, because the debate has moved from fact to fiction, beyond pedagogy to politics, and from mainstream secularism to religious fundamentalism melded with social conservatism. Plus political opportunism.

It is a tale of religious-cultural-secular tensions that goes back hundreds of years to the separation of church and state in Western secular democracies. But it goes deeper than that to the question of how and what our students are taught.

On one side are some parents, many of them recent immigrants, who are genuinely flummoxed by talk of masturbation and anal sex that is not part of their social vocabulary, even if it’s already online all the time. Rallying to their side are the politicians, from Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives and the federal Conservatives, pandering to parents and profiting from their fears by encouraging and indulging those who persist in reading the curriculum out of context.

Forgotten in the furor is that Progressive Conservatives, when in power, have taken a progressive approach to the issue. Nearly two decades ago, then-PC premier Mike Harris brought in an Ontario sex-ed curriculum that was in tune with the times. In Alberta, a longtime PC government brought in a curriculum that is often sought out by Ontario teachers looking for guidance online (because their own course materials are so hopelessly outdated).

Yet the federal Tories now cultivate the most socially conservative Muslims on the sex-ed issue, so soon after berating anyone who wears a burka. Jason Kenney, the federal cabinet minister who has spearheaded his party’s ethnic outreach, knows better than to let his party exploit fear and ignorance.

Equally, the new Ontario PC leader, Patrick Brown, discredits himself by duping social conservatives into believing that broader parental consultations would undo the curriculum. It is going ahead this September, and he knows it.

Politicians should stop playing politics with the lives of our schoolchildren. It’s time they told fearful parents the truth — even if they don’t want to hear it — rather than perpetuating the fiction that they can keep our curriculum frozen in time.