British Columbia·FROM THE ARCHIVES

When teaching teenagers about AIDS was a really big deal

Sex education in B.C. starts as early as kindergarten, so it can be difficult to imagine how controversial it once was to teach Grade 12 students about preventing AIDS.

Former Vancouver School Board chair says a new AIDS education program met with fierce opposition in 1987

An excerpt from a video shown as part of a controversial new HIV/AIDS education program aimed at Vancouver Grade 12 students in 1987. The video showed students candidly speaking about sex and birth control. (CBC)

With sex education in B.C. starting as early as kindergarten, it can be difficult to imagine how controversial it once was to teach students about to graduate high school how to keep from getting infected with HIV/AIDS. 

But such was the case 30 years ago this week, when the Vancouver School Board put in place a short program to explain to students the basics of how the virus can spread through sex and drug use. 

"Things were in a bit of chaos. There was a real fear factor out there in the schools," said Ken Denike, the VSB chair at the time. 

"At the time remember we didn't know much about HIV."

The following video, originally broadcast in April 1987 on CBC's The National, highlights some of the controversy:

Teaching teens in Vancouver about AIDS, 1987

6 years ago
Duration 2:35
Vancouver rolls out a controversial new program to teach students about HIV/AIDS

By 1985, 1.5 million people across the world were living with the virus

The following year, the U.S. surgeon general issued a report on the virus to quell fears of how it spread; it called for better education in schools. 

Denike said schools in the U.S. were already running AIDS education programs when the school board set out to start its own in 1987. 

Part of that decision, he recalled, was because of the panic that ensued after a teacher was diagnosed with HIV. 

Denike said there was so much misinformation at the time that some of the other teachers refused to come into work, because they were concerned about getting infected. 

'Real serious opposition'

The eventual decision to teach the course, which Denike said was only offered, because of resource issues, to Grade 12 students about to graduate, was a controversial one. 

"There was a great deal of opposition that we ran into. Real serious opposition," Denike said. 

"A lot of people didn't think it was the right thing to do."

Denike said that opposition came mainly from religious groups and fundamentalists, but it also came from parents and others who thought provincial health authorities were better equipped to teach the public about the matter. 

Even the premier at the time, the Social Credit's Bill Vander Zalm, weighed in and adamantly spoke out against the school program. 

Denike said his two home phones rang off the hook for the six weeks it took to implement the program, with reporters frequently showing up at his door unannounced.

As for the rest of the school board, Denike said there was a lot of reluctance but trustees eventually gave the go-ahead.

Ultimately, he said the program was well received by parents, especially when they saw how important it was to their children. 

"Parents saw it, the kids then saw it, and there was no complaint. After that it died down almost immediately," he said.


Maryse Zeidler


Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at