Quebec to introduce sex-ed pilot project with 'no exemptions'

The province is rolling out a new pilot project in which sex education, like French and math, will soon become mandatory for all students from kindergarten to the last year of high school.

Program could be adopted by schools across province in 2017

Quebec is set to introduce a new sex education pilot project, a year after Ontario's updated curriculum sparked waves of protests. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Education on sexual matters is too important to be optional, according to Quebec's Ministry of Education.

The province is rolling out a new pilot project in which sex education, like French and mathematics, will soon become mandatory for all students from kindergarten to the last year of high school, regardless of the religious or personal convictions of parents across different cultural communities.

No exceptions will be made.

The sexuality education pilot project, which will begin in the next few days in about 15 schools, will last two years. The program, which will affect 8,200 students, could be adopted by schools across the province in 2017.

However, documents obtained by The Canadian Press, as well a series of interviews conducted in recent weeks, show that approval for the program is far from unanimous.

Program could be contentious

Months after the announcement of an upgraded sex education curriculum drew large-scale protests from parents in Ontario, the implementation of the Quebec program has no lack of contentious elements, whether it's the mandatory nature of the classes, lack of training for teachers, or the absence of consultation.

And whether they like it or not, even the most reluctant parents will have to get used to the idea that their children will learn about the signs of puberty and different sexual practices just as they learn about math and conjugating verbs.

"For the moment, no exemptions are planned," said Ministry of Education spokesperson Pascal Ouellet.

In the field, some are wondering if the ministry took Quebec's cultural and religious diversity into account.

For example, how should teachers and administrators respond when a parent opposes, for religious reasons, their 12-year-old child learning to identify different sexual practices?

Some parents opposed

Lorraine Normand-Charbonneau, the president of the Quebec School Principals Federation, says some parents just "don't want their teen to learn about masturbation" in class.

"What will we do, take out those students?" she asked.

Out of the question, according to the ministry.

"Sexual education is planned for all Quebec students," Ouellet said. The reasoning is that education is beneficial for "preventing sexual assaults, violence in romantic relationships, blood and sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancies."

Some worry that the teachers called to transmit the material are not adequately trained to do so, raising fears of slip ups during the pilot project.

"They're incompetents," said Sylvain Mallette, president of the FAE teachers' union.

"They're incompetents playing with the intimate'' concerns of students, continued the history teacher, who said he was shocked that the Ministry of Education would trust the teaching of a subject as delicate as human sexuality to people without any expertise in the subject matter.

Who will teach the material?

This topic should be broached by trained professionals, echoed Normand-Charbonneau.

Now, during the back-to-school period, it is difficult to say who exactly is responsible for sexual education in schools. The ministry foresees that it could be teachers, nurses, psychologists, or representatives from community organizations. If it's teachers, the task could fall just as easily to a math teacher as one who teaches French or geography.

Anatomy lessons or lessons on sexually transmitted infections could therefore, for several hours, compete with French or algebra. The teacher could talk about sex "during his subject time,'' confirmed another ministry spokesperson, Esther Chouinard.

"People teaching sexual education don't need to be high-level experts" to ensure high-quality instruction for the students, she said, adding that the ministry believed "a few hours" of training to be sufficient.

Up until now, not a single person has been charged with teaching sexuality, and no training has been given.

It will be up to school boards and school administrators to recruit volunteers.

But "if nobody wants to, what do we do?'' asked Normand-Charbonneau, who worries teachers will abstain after the
confusion surrounding the launch.

Mallette confirmed that teachers "are not knocking at the door" to sign up for the project.

Ontario changes sparked protests

Last spring, Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals had to lower her sights after the new sexual education curriculum proved so controversial that thousands of parents pulled their children out of class.

The ministry calmed the issue by telling parents their children could opt out.

In Quebec, it will be difficult to do the same since sex education won't be a separate course and won't have a set schedule. The material will be integrated into regular classes or will be the subject of activities.

Therefore, if the French teacher gives the class, the student will be deprived of both sex education and their regular French lesson.

The situation is not helped by the fact that the project is being launched in a period of heated contract negotiations and pressure tactics from the province's teachers.

The Ministry of Education, which has been working for five years to bring sexual education back into the classroom, has stated everything is in place to assure the pilot project's success, that the subject matter will be taught in an age-appropriate manner and that all the necessary training and tools will be provided to the schools.

Quebec Education Minister François Blais declined to be interviewed on the issue.