Sherbrooke school board cancels anti-homophobia workshops after parent complains

A school board in Sherbrooke, Que., has halted a series of anti-homophobia workshops after parents complained about the materials being presented to elementary school students.

Prima Danse was supposed to offer 4 workshops but the school board halted them after only 2

This photo of two athletes embracing upset some parents of Sherbrooke elementary school children. (Submitted Olivier Ciappa)

A school board in Sherbrooke, Que., has halted a series of anti-homophobia workshops after parents complained about the materials being presented to elementary school students.

The non-profit group Prima Danse gave two workshops, out of the four planned, before the Sherbrooke regional school board (CSRS) decided to stop holding them.

During the second workshop, Prima Danse animators showed sixth graders a photo of former Montreal Alouette safety Étienne Boulay and former Montreal Impact player David Testo in each other's arms. The photo was part of the exhibition Imaginary Couples, by photographer Olivier Ciappa.

The father of a student who attended the workshop complained to the school, prompting the school board to terminate its agreement with Prima Danse.

"The father, that night, called other parents, called the school board, and went in-person in the morning to speak with the teacher in question and tell them in-person everything that was on his mind," said Katrina Journeau, director of Prima Danse, which holds dance-oriented workshops on social issues. 

Quebec ministers defend course

Journeau said the father told her that "Sherbrooke isn't necessarily like Montreal" and that "students in the sixth grade shouldn't necessarily need to hear about homosexuality."

He also said his child felt embarrassed after being shown the photos, she added.

The anti-homophobia workshops have been given about 50 times since 2013 and this is the first time there has been a complaint, according to Journeau.

Two Quebec cabinet ministers have defended Prima Danse and are urging the school board to reconsider its decision, saying young people need to learn about different sexual orientations early.

"These questions have to be discussed with young people," said Quebec Education Minister Sébastien Proulx. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"These questions have to be discussed with young people. It all depends on the moment, the way it's done," Education Minister Sébastien Proulx said.

Families Minister Luc Fortin said children see people kissing in the street, so they have to get used to it.

"It's part of reality and I think it's quite legitimate for those kids to be aware of issues around homophobia," Fortin added.

Meeting scheduled for new year

The school board has promised to meet with representatives from Prima Danse in the new year, and held out the possibility of resuming the workshops if changes were made to their content. 

"We didn't necessarily pull the final plug," said Christian Provencher, the school board's director.

"We put all this on ice because we wanted to look at things. We didn't pull out of the project for the fun of it. We pulled out because there were things that bothered us."

The controversy comes as Quebec makes sexual education mandatory in schools beginning in first grade, and continuing until the end of high school. Schools are expected to teach these new courses as of September 2018.

Vanessa Forgues, a sexologist, disagreed with the sentiment that elementary school is too young to talk to children about homosexuality. 

She recommended opening a discussion about sexual diversity when kids are as young as four years old.

"By grade six for example, what would be relevant to address would be the awakening in love, the sexual awakening, 'Can I fall in love with a girl, with a boy?'" she said.

With files from Radio-Canada's Marion Bérubé