The decision by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to back away from a controversial new sex education curriculum for the province's schools has been greeted with relief by some interest groups and concern by others.

"It's become pretty obvious to us that we should give this a serious rethink," McGuinty told reporters Thursday.

"We by no means are gloating," said Rev. Ekron Malcolm, director of the Institute for Canadian Values, "but we give God the glory. It's a victory for the Canadian children."

The new sex education curriculum that had been planned for Ontario grade schools will not be introduced when the 2010-11 school year begins, McGuinty announced.

Religious groups objected to the revised curriculum and raised a voluble campaign against it earlier this week. They promised a huge demonstration on the front lawn of Queen's Park to protest the sex education changes. 

"It is unconscionable to teach eight-year-old children same-sex marriage, sexual orientation and gender identity," said Charles McVety, head of the Canada Christian College. "It is even more absurd to subject sixth graders to instruction on the pleasures of masturbation, vaginal lubrication, and 12-year-olds to lessons on oral sex and anal intercourse."

Sudden turnabout

McGuinty appeared to be caught by surprise by the new curriculum, and just scant hours after his education minister defended it in the provincial legislature, he told reporters the sex ed program was halted.

"The fact of the matter is that we have a very diverse province. And I think that it's very important that as a government when we develop policies of any kind — but especially when it comes to sex education in our schools, something that touches our children directly — that we listen very carefully to what parents have to say and we take their concerns into account and lend shape to a curriculum that they are comfortable with," the premier said.

Wilfrid Laurier University Prof. David Docherty said the explicit language in the curriculum may have caught McGuinty off guard. 

"The language has changed [from previous sex education material] and I suspect it is the language that has angered, or concerned some parents — and has allowed others who are opposed to broader sex education in school in general, to jump on this and suggest the government is going far, too far."

Docherty said the Ontario Liberals have made a habit of floating contentious issues — just to see how they play out. In this case, however, it was a government policy that McGuinty abandoned.

"This was not a trial balloon, this was actually a very significant government policy — not too far removed from what they were doing before in sex education," he said.

"If Mr. McGuinty had been … informed from the start, I suspect there would have been a great deal more care in how this was announced, the language that was used, and the language that the students would be taught at a young age, would have been put forward in a much more sensitive manner," Docherty said.

Parents' reaction mixed

Parent Rehana Shaik is glad the government backed down.

"I don't want the kids at a tender age to learn all that sex education.  My younger son will be starting Grade 1 next year and I don't want him to learn all that," she said. 

Under the changes that were quietly released in January, Grade 1 children were to be taught to identify genitalia using the correct words, such as penis, vagina and testicle.

In Grade 5, children were to be taught to identify parts of the reproductive system and describe how the body changes during puberty.

In Grade 7, the plan was to teach kids how to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Not all parents disapproved.

Rosalinde Rundle said she wants her child to be comfortable with sexuality.

"They'll learn [sex education] in school, and then every kid will learn the same thing, and then they won't make such a big deal of it probably, because it's not so taboo," she said. 

Sherri-Anne Medema liked the sound of the new sex education program. She feels the premier caved to pressure.

"It goes beyond religious beliefs. It goes beyond what culture the people are from, and [McGuinty] should stick to his guns and say, 'OK, we're going to continue on.'" 

Political scientist Docherty said McGuinty's quick retreat may be linked to some contentious political battles he is currently fighting, or anticipating.

"He's dealing right now with a very hot button issue with the pharmacists and the pharmacies in Ontario. We've got the HST coming into effect soon … there's concerns that he has with the physicians in dealing with doctors and health-care costs that's coming up. He's dealing with wage restraints and freezing wages in the broader public sector. And it may well be that Mr. McGuinty thought, 'I just don't need this battle right now.'" 

McGuinty has promised more consultation, but it's unlikely a new curriculum will be delivered soon.