Civil liberties association suing Ontario government to block sex ed changes

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is suing the Ontario government in an attempt to stop what it calls "discriminatory" changes to the sex ed curriculum for elementary students.

Head of Canadian Civil Liberties Association calls Doug Ford's sex ed changes a 'dog-whistle of bigotry'

The Ontario government's interim sex-ed curriculum, revealed just weeks before a new school year, is being challenged in court by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. (CBC)

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is suing the Ontario government in an attempt to stop what it calls "discriminatory" changes to the sex ed curriculum for elementary school students.

Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government announced the major changes to the curriculum on Wednesday in a news release, and suggested teachers would risk punishment if they don't adhere to the interim curriculum — an older version of the health and physical education curriculum that has undergone some modifications.

The government is also setting up a website so any parents concerned about what their children are hearing in class can complain about teachers.

CCLA executive director Michael Bryant called the government's actions a "ham-fisted dog-whistle of bigotry, of homophobia, dressed up as a consultation fix."

"We are calling it out and taking it to court," he told reporters in downtown Toronto on Thursday afternoon.

Teachers' unions, thousands of parents and the Official Opposition have criticized the government's decision to scrap the modernized sex ed curriculum, which was brought in by the former Liberal government in 2015. That version of the curriculum included information about online bullying, sexting and gender identity, and marked the first update since 1998.

But opponents of the curriculum, especially social conservatives, have objected to parts addressing same-sex relationships, gender identity and masturbation.

Michael Bryant said the CCLA is filing the lawsuit on behalf of a 'courageous family' whose daughter could be marginalized should the government's changes to the sex-ed curriculum go ahead as planned. (Chris Glover/CBC)

Bryant, who was Ontario's attorney general from 2003 to 2007, said all parties involved have been notified about the lawsuit, which is being filed on behalf of Becky McFarlane — a mother who self-identifies as queer according to the court filing — and her 10-year-old daughter, who will be starting Grade 6 at a Toronto public school in September. The girl's name isn't being released for privacy reasons.

Byrant said the government's interim curriculum strips out substantive information that will result in the family feeling othered.

"They've taken out content in a way that discriminates against this family on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity," he said. 

The court filing — submitted to a divisional court of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice — said the family has nothing to gain financially from filing the lawsuit. 

Lawsuit hinges on 3 main arguments

Stuart Svonkin, a lawyer with Chernos Flaherty Svonkin LLP, is working with the CCLA on the lawsuit. He told CBC News the organization plans to challenge the government on three main points:

  • The government's decision is not consistent with Ontario's Education Act, which requires the province to provide inclusive school environments.
  • The decision is inconsistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — specifically, the equality of rights and security of the person.
  • The decision violates the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Svonkin said the CCLA will ask the court to hear the case on an urgent basis given that the new school year is just weeks away. He said he expects the government is ready for a court challenge because the CCLA had threatened legal action if it abandoned the most recent sex ed curriculum.

"I don't think they can possibly be surprised," he said.

A group of human rights lawyers are also challenging the government's decision in a separate lawsuit on behalf of six families.

Neither Ford nor Education Minister Lisa Thompson have taken questions from reporters since announcing the changes. CBC News has been seeking an interview with Thompson for three straight days, but her office maintains she is "unavailable."

Toronto school board still has questions

The chair of Canada's largest school board says the Ontario government needs to spell out the differences between its newly released interim sex ed curriculum and the document it is replacing.

Toronto District School Board chair Robin Pilkey says the interim curriculum doesn't clearly address what teachers can and cannot teach when classes resume in less than two weeks.

Pilkey also discussed the changes on CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Thursday.

She says board staff are currently combing through the new document and the now-repealed modernized version to figure out how they differ — but notes the province had months to provide that information.

The PCs have previously said the party is scrapping the modernized curriculum because there wasn't enough consultation with parents. During the election campaign, Ford said the changes had been rammed down parents' throats.

In its news release, the government says it wants to create a more "age-appropriate" sex ed curriculum.

The government has now announced a provincewide consultation process that will seek input on everything from sex ed to the math curriculum to the use of mobile phones in schools. So far, it hasn't said how much that will cost.

During the consultation process, high school students will continue to learn from the modernized sex ed curriculum. However, students in Grades 1 through 8 will be taught from the interim curriculum.

NDP says changes will put children at risk

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath slammed the government for creating confusion around the curriculum and not clearly explaining the differences between the 2015 and the now revised lesson plan.

"My understanding is it's not going to include concepts like consent, that it's not going to address issues like cyberbullying and that leaves our kids at risk," she said.

"For the purposes of satisfying backroom deals that Mr. Ford made when he was running for the leadership with the radical social conservatives in his party, he's continuing to put our children at risk."

She also denounced the anonymous complaints website, calling it an attempt to pit parents against teachers.

"I think this is a tool Mr. Ford is using once again to create divisiveness and it's a mean-spirited tactic," she said. "I think parents have every opportunity to raise concerns that they have and they've had that opportunity in the past."

With files from Meagan Fitzpatrick and The Canadian Press