The facts about Ontario's sex ed curriculum

Does PC Leader Doug Ford and his defeated rivals know what they're talking about when it comes to sex education in Ontario? To find out, CBC News took five statements made during the two PC leadership debates and ran them by two experts, as well as Ontario's Ministry of Education.

Sex education has become a rallying issue in the upcoming election, but what is being taught in our schools?

The Ontario election campaign hasn't begun officially, but it's already in full swing with leadership candidates holding town halls and speaking tours. And one of the issues galvanizing Progressive Conservative voters has been the provincial sex ed curriculum.

PC Leader Doug Ford has not been clear about what he would do if made premier. Since winning the leadership he has said he would scrap the curriculum altogether, but a statement issued Tuesday by his campaign said Ford is "going to examine the entire curriculum and consult with parents and teachers to ensure Ontario children have the essential skills, including math, needed for the jobs of the future."

Carly Basian leads workshops on the new sex education curriculum for students, teachers and other school personnel across Ontario. (Supplied)

The topic was debated by all Ford's PC leadership rivals, including Tanya Granic Allen and Christine Elliott, and Ford's sex ed stance helped him win.

But do Ford and his defeated rivals know what they're talking about when it comes to this issue? To find out, CBC News took five statements made during the two PC leadership debates and ran them by two experts, as well as Ontario's Ministry of Education.

Carly Basian, from Toronto, leads workshops on the new sex education curriculum for students, teachers and other school personnel across Ontario, and Jessica O'Reilly, also from Toronto, is a public speaker who also provides some training on sex education for teachers.

Here's what they have to say.

'Parents were not consulted on sex education. I can guarantee it.'
- Doug Ford

In the fall of 2014, the Ministry of Education surveyed approximately 4,000 parents, one for every elementary school in the province, according to the ministry.

"To have 4,000 voices chime in, that's a very solid number," Basian said.

Principals and parent involvement committee chairs chose which parent representative from the school council would complete the survey, and were told to do so independently to ensure "the quality and integrity of the data," the ministry said.

The ministry also gathered input from "2,400 educators and other stakeholders via face-to-face sessions and an online survey," and "consulted 700 students in 26 face-to-face regional consultation sessions."

In addition, police, academics, Children's Aid Societies, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, the Ontario Healthy Schools Coalition and the Institute for Catholic Education were consulted.

'Maybe [students] could concentrate full scale on math if they weren't talking about anal sex in the classroom.'
- Tanya Granic Allen

Adding same-sex relationships to the curriculum caused such a backlash in 2010 that former premier Dalton McGuinty dropped the whole thing hours after his education minister defended it in the legislature. The curriculum was eventually introduced in the fall of 2015.

Basian said that prior to the new curriculum, there was no mention of anything other than penile-vaginal sex.

"We have to consider that sex is different for different people," Basian said.

"It's not a how-to guide, but a harm-reduction approach," O'Reilly added.

Tanya Granic Allen, who finished fourth in the PC leadership race, announced in March her plan to run for the party's nomination in the riding of Mississauga Centre. (David Donnelly/CBC)

For example, the new curriculum warns students about the risks of HIV transmission from "vaginal or anal intercourse without a condom." It suggests teachers explain the importance of delaying sexual activity by "choosing to abstain from having vaginal or anal intercourse."

Basian said some misconceptions arise from how the curriculum is designed. Teachers are given specific "expectations" — which the teacher must teach — and embedded within the expectations are examples that aren't mandatory.

The examples about anal and oral sex are optional, according to the ministry, and they are also a minor part of the school year.

"The sexual health curriculum is only 10 per cent of the health curriculum. So you're only teaching sexual health one or two weeks of the year," Basian added.

'Right now in our curriculum, pornography is not even mentioned.'
- Tanya Granic Allen

Pornography is addressed in Grade 9 as an optional example of "harmful or undesirable information and entertainment," according to the ministry. 

It's included as a possible implication of online activity.

'The other whole area that the curriculum doesn't cover is things like cyberbullying and sexting, and all those things related to technology.'
- Christine Elliott

"It's just inaccurate," Basian said. "It is there as a topic that teachers are welcome to talk about with their students, from Grade 7 onward, to highlight how students can engage safely online."

The ministry documents talk about "not sharing personal information, videos and photos," O'Reilly added.

They talk about "understanding the risks and benefits associated with digital technology; respecting the privacy of others and not sharing other people's photos without consent; developing assertion skills, in person and online; how to respond to uncomfortable situations online such as leaving a conversation or using anonymous reporting systems to report abusive behaviour; developing skills to respond to bullying and stand up for others; and understanding the risks associated with sexting."

Christine Elliott, who lost the PC leadership race to Ford, will seek the party's nomination in Newmarket-Aurora. (David Donnelly/CBC)

CBC also decided to fact check this exchange between Granic Allen and Elliott.

Granic Allen: "Would you or anyone else on the stage commit to giving advance notice of when these contentious materials will be discussed so that parents can exercise that choice that you so eloquently spoke of?"

Elliott: "Yes, of course they should. People used to know when these things are being taught. If they can't now they should have the right for their child not to be in that class if they don't want them to."

So are parents getting advance notice?

"It depends on the teacher," Basian said. "It is up to the teacher and the school administration to determine if parents are alerted ahead of time. Best practice is to give a heads up to families so they can begin having conversations at home."

Not all teachers are teaching the new curriculum. Both Basian and O'Reilly said teachers in public and Catholic boards who are uncomfortable with the content are choosing to avoid parts of it. And of course, nobody is standing at the back of the classroom to enforce it.

Ontario Today, CBC Radio's province-wide, open-line show with host Rita Celli, is opening the lines at noon Wednesday to hear from teachers about what it's really like to teach the new curriculum.

O'Reilly will be Celli's guest.

Margot Wright