Opponents of Ontario’s Sex-Ed Curriculum Run Up Against Human Rights Code
When parents and others have raised the alarm over sex education in Ontario schools, many have hit the same wall: the province’s Human Rights Code.
School board trustees who support the current sex-ed regimen often frame complaints as discriminatory by citing the code. These trustees, along with the province’s human rights system itself, create a significant barrier to change.
But it’s not insurmountable if the political will is there, experts told The Epoch Times. Solutions they propose include taking on the human rights system itself, and following a path similar to the charter school system.
Premier Doug Ford’s government attempted to change the sex-ed curriculum in 2019 to address parental concerns, but proponents and critics alike say little changed. Topics of concern to some parents remain in the curriculum for the younger grades, including teaching gender as a social construct.
Ford’s education ministry, in an email to The Epoch Times, highlighted a new option for parents to have their children opt out of sex-ed, but the ministry didn’t reply to questions about broader changes.
Opt-Out Option Limited
The opt-out option has limits, however, as an Ottawa parent found out when Pride Month celebrations brought sexual-preference discussions to his daughter’s kindergarten class. When he complained, the school cited the Human Rights Code in defence.
The parent, who wishes to use the pseudonym William to protect his daughter’s privacy, had an issue with items related to sexual identity in a book the teacher read to the class. He says he’d prefer those topics be saved for when his daughter is older.
William forwarded to The Epoch Times his email exchange with the school principal, which ended with the principal saying that parents may choose to have their children opt out of sex-ed.
However, the principal noted: “Everything else in the school, whether it’s Black History Month, Pride Month, Asian Heritage Month, our educators may choose books [to] read to children, songs, or do other activities that highlight these events and there is no opt-out option in the public school system that pertains to this, as per the Human Rights Code.”
William said discussions on these topics shouldn’t be held at the kindergarten level. “That’s an adult conversation,” he told The Epoch Times.
He is happier with the school’s new principal, who seems more understanding about his concerns.
Campaign Life Coalition spokesperson Jack Fonseca told The Epoch Times that principals and teachers can make a big difference despite the official curriculum, for better or for worse.
“I think the sex-ed opt-out option can be effective when you find a reasonable teacher and/or school principal,” he said via email.
The books available in school libraries are also a matter of concern for many parents.
Earlier this year, a school board in Waterloo cited the Ontario Human Rights Commission in defending its decision to keep the book “The Bluest Eye” in its libraries. The book includes detailed accounts of sexual acts, including incest.
Waterloo Region District School Board trustee Mike Ramsay spoke out against the book even though his fellow trustees temporarily banned him from meetings last year after similar statements.
Ramsay’s experience is not unique. The Durham District School Board ousted trustee Linda Stone in February. One of her opponents accused her of being “transphobic” when she raised concerns about gender-identity policies. The board’s decision to ban Stone heavily cites the Human Rights Code.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission, which is part of the province’s human rights system, interprets the Human Rights Code. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario is where human rights cases are filed and decided, informed by the commission but not determined by it.
The commission has stated explicitly that it favours the curriculum brought in by the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne in 2015, which is largely what remains in place. In 2018, the commission spoke against the Ford government’s proposed roll-backs of some sex-ed content, particularly the parts relating to LGBTQ+ components.
“This is not the safe, welcoming education experience envisioned in the Human Rights Code,” the commission said in an October 2018 news release.
Ontario lawyer Alexander Boissonneau-Lehner said there are ways, in theory, that a provincial government could overcome the human rights system to remove these elements of concern from schools.
The government could add a statement to the Human Rights Code to the effect of, “nothing under this code is to be interpreted to apply to school curriculums,” he said, though noting that this would “be controversial and a big, hot-button issue.”
If the government doesn’t change the code but proceeds with school system changes anyway, opponents may file complaints to the tribunal. In this situation, the tribunal would then decide on a case-by-case basis whether the code had been violated.
However, Boissonneau-Lehner said the tribunal is typically so busy that many cases brought to it languish. When he first started practising nine years ago, “it was fairly swift,” he said. Now it takes about a year just for the tribunal to acknowledge the submission of a complaint.
Charter Schools, Voucher Programs
Rodney Clifton, a University of Manitoba professor emeritus of sociology of education, says charter schools are another solution but suggests a different option, that of school voucher programs.
Charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free, and while they must meet certain education standards, they have more power over their curriculum and teaching approach. They are more common in the United States, and Alberta is the only province in Canada that currently allows them.
Clifton suggests a voucher system instead, where parents are given voucher dollars for their children to be used in any educational setting, whether public, charter, private, or home schools. The funds would follow the students instead of going directly to the schools, giving parents consumer choice. Voucher programs have started up in many parts of the United States in recent years.
Some concerned parents have turned to private schools or homeschooling, Clifton said, and a voucher system would allow them to take their tax money from the public system to do so.
“Why do parents have to pay for something that they’ve already paid the public system to deliver, but the public system has failed to deliver it?”