Manitoba will continue to shield some students from 'sensitive content' in class
New policy would formalize what was already department policy, government says; NDP says approach is backward
Manitoba is promising an education system for the future, but one critic says the province is clinging to the past on its approach to "potentially sensitive content."
The new centralized education authority will write a policy to ensure parents receive a heads-up before sensitive topics are brought up, under the government's new education bill revealed this week, the Education Modernization Act.
"Any bill with the word 'modernization' on the front of it, in 2021, should be actually showing us something that is keeping with the times and not rolling us back to the '50s with what they're saying is considered sensitive topics," said NDP MLA Lisa Naylor, a former school trustee.
Manitoba will define "human sexuality, substance use and abuse prevention, and personal safety" as topics parents must be warned about before they are broached in a physical education or health course, the proposed legislation says.
A guardian can withdraw their child from those discussions, in writing, if there is a "conflict between the content and the parent or child's religious, cultural or family values," the bill says. The child's absence will be excused, provided they are taught the same material by their parent or a trained professional.
Brenda Brazeau, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils, says parents and guardians want to have a voice in some fashion.
While speaking with CBC News, Brazeau used religion as an example.
"Religion is a very hot topic. We want to make sure that everybody is feeling comfortable and that we're not going against someone's religion or anything like that," she said.
"While we respect that people have different cultural, social and religious philosophies, we also realize that some things are deeply personal and best left for parents to discuss with their children, their child's teacher or school administration directly."
Ultimately, the board just wants to ensure what is being taught to children is safe and appropriate for the various age levels, Brazeau said.
Endorsement of parent choice
The province said in a statement Friday the government will formalize through legislation what is already department policy, as well as "reinforce what happens in practice and support parental choice relating to their child's education."
The bill also demands a new written policy on respect for human diversity that supports the establishment of groups like gay-straight alliances.
Naylor said she understands parents may be worried by sensitive subjects, but she said the status quo of requiring parental blessing falls short.
"If it was up to me, those conversations [on sensitive topics] would be happening in every living room across the province at a young age, but we know that's not always happening, we know that's not always true," Naylor said.
"The young man who doesn't get consent education knowledge when he's 15 or 16, maybe gets into a lot of trouble when he's 18 or 19 or 20."
Naylor said she is frustrated "abuse prevention" and "personal safety" are listed by the province as subjects optional for in-class learning.
"I can't imagine a world in 2021 where we would not want every child to be prepared to know what to do if they were at risk."
Dene Guillas helps schools support their LGBTQ students through the Rainbow Resource Centre in Winnipeg.
Currently, different schools have different classifications for what it describes as sensitive material, he said. He worries the new one-size-fits-all policy will be too restrictive.
"Who gets to decide then, based off this policy, what is actually potentially sensitive or not?" Guillas asked, wondering if it will restrict a "student's right to accessible, accurate and inclusive information."
He'd prefer if every student was equipped in the classroom with accurate knowledge of diverse experiences.
"We're not telling them this is the decision you need to make, or this is the route you need to take or who you need to be, it's just information.
Students already in the know
"And to be honest," he added, "our kids are getting it anyway, our kids are going to be Googling this stuff."
Whether it's taught in the classroom or at home, Jared Star, co-executive director of the Sexuality Education Resource Centre of Manitoba, said it's important all students have the facts on sexuality.
"We know that access to this information in this education saves lives. It reduces negative mental health outcomes. It prepares young people for really complex situations," he said.
Star happily works within the rules of whichever school he works with, he added.
The Manitoba Association of Parent Councils apologized Friday for a position paper in 2013 in which it asked the province to honour the ability of families to opt out of curriculum in math, English or history in general, or sensitive subjects such as human sexuality and evolution. The document made the rounds on social media this year.
The current board does not hold that position, Brazeau said.
Today, Brazeau said she respects families' right to know about their child's education, but it shouldn't exempt them from core sections of the curriculum.
"If we have everybody that doesn't like a subject opt out of something and have the right to opt out of something, then our children are never going to learn," Brazeau said.
"We, as individuals, deal with sensitive topics every day. That's part of becoming an adult and who we are."
Brazeau added she's unsure if she endorses the government's new policy. She wants clarity on the province's definition for "potentially sensitive content."
The province is expecting to release an implementation plan for its education shake-up by fall 2021.