Pride and protest: Marchers denounce sex-ed changes

There was an air of defiance amid the celebration at Sunday's Pride parade in Ottawa, as participants and onlookers denounced the Ontario government's decision to return to an old sex-ed curriculum for students in Grades 1 to 8.

Ford government's decision to revert to old elementary curriculum worries paradegoers

Marchers protest the Ontario government's move to return to an elementary sex-ed curriculum many feel is outdated. (Judy Trinh/ CBC News)

Jessica Legault and Nadia Gregoire never miss a Pride parade, and make sure their three young daughters don't, either.

Sunday was no exception. The family of five was among the throngs lining the streets of downtown Ottawa to take in the riot of rainbows and over-the-top costumes during Sunday's edition of the annual event.

"I'm a transgender person. We like to come to Pride every year to show our children that everything is great, even if you're different," Legault said.

"In this kind of society we want to show them that they can be whatever they want, as long as they respect themselves. Everything is possible as long as they love each other," Gregoire said.

But amid all the celebration there was an air of defiance at this year's parade. Activists chanted "Sex ed saves lives!" as they marched along the parade route. Some parents held protest signs, and one woman dressed up as a scrapped curriculum book.

LGBT families erased from curriculum

While LGBT families are becoming increasingly visible in Canada, critics fear they're being erased from the classroom in Ontario.

Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government is launching consultations to rewrite the elementary sex-ed curriculum, but in the meantime is forcing teachers to use material developed in 1998 instead of new guidelines set out in 2015. The government has even created a complaint line for parents to tattle on teachers who don't follow the interim curriculum. 

Christine McLaren and her daughters, 14 and 9, arrived early Sunday and staked out a prime spot near the start of the Pride parade. McLaren said she wants to expose her kids to different kinds of families.

"My 9-year-old doesn't seem to know a lot about this, and that's why I wanted to bring her here. This is something that's going on every day in the world. It's not going away and it's awesome," said McLaren, a critic of the government's move to replace the sex-ed curriculum.

Christine McLaren takes in the parade with daughters Valerie, 9, and Anna, 14, and a friend.

Gaps in curriculum

The interim curriculum includes a vague aim to "respect diversity" in its introduction, but mainly focuses on teaching children about healthy heterosexual relationships. 

It includes no guidelines on how educators should discuss sexual orientation or gender identity. The words "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" only appear in the glossary.

Nor does it mention same-sex parents or other non-traditional family structures.

The curriculum change spurred University of Ottawa student Lyra Evans to put her name forward as a candidate for school trustee. Evans is transgender and used to help teach sex education to high school students as a volunteer with Planned Parenthood.

"It's a tragedy that this is being taken away," Evans said. "With people coming out younger and younger, it's really important that their peers understand what's going on and can be supportive. Evidence shows that the best way for people to be supportive it is to be exposed to it younger."

Lyra Evans is running to become a school board trustee. (Judy Trinh/ CBC News)

Emboldening bullies

Collin Patrick, 18, watched the parade go by with friends on Gladstone Avenue. The queer teen said he'd just signed a petition to bring back the 2015 sex-ed curriculum because he worries removing it will embolden bullies.

"Right now they're being taught to be more accepting and to welcome people. If we take that away from them they may be like older generations where they didn't learn about gender identity and sexual identity, where they can be more transphobic and homophobic toward people."

Jennifer Blahey, a social worker at CHEO, dressed her children in matching rainbow T-shirts and brought them with her to march in the parade.

"I think kids have a sense of who they are and who they're attracted to from a young age," said Blahey, who counsels LBGT children. "Grade 9 is a little bit late." 

As concerned as she is about the change to the curriculum, Blahey said parents must take responsibility, too.

"I'm hoping parents will talk to their kids," she said. "I can't stress that enough. It starts in the home."

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