#WeTheStudentsDoNotConsent: How a hashtag inspired Ontario students to walk out of class

On Sept. 21, 2018 Ontario students from high schools and middle schools walked out of their classrooms in droves, to protest changes made to their sex education and Indigenous history school curriculums.
Students at more than 100 schools across Ontario walked out of class to protest changes to the province's sex-ed and history curriculums. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

On Sept. 21, 2018 Ontario students from high schools and middle schools walked out of their classrooms in droves, to protest changes made to their sex education and Indigenous history school curricula.

What started this movement was the hashtag, #WeTheStudentsDoNotConsent, created by 16-year old Ojibway, two-spirit student Indygo Arscott, who goes by gender-neutral pronouns.

"Especially among my generation, you truly can't describe the power of social media, and the ability to reach people," said Arscott.

"I thought a hashtag was a really good way for young organizers … to connect with each other to share ideas, and share the message."  

The future of this country lies in its classrooms, 16-year-old Indygo Arscott told the crowd. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

"Everything I learned about organizing was said to me under the condition that you have to know exactly what changes you want to see, you have to have a vision laid out, and I think #WeTheStudentsDoNotConsent really captured in one line exactly the kind of changes we're trying to make."

The day they posted the hashtag online, it blew up.

"It took off overnight, and … it was trending second in all of Canada, which was mind blowing to me," said Arscott.

After the hashtag took off, Arscott decided to plan the walk out, and was surprised by how much attention it got.

"I thought maybe 10 schools were going to participate, but then it became a dozen schools, it became 50 schools, it became 100 schools," said Arscott.

"I had to take a more professional approach to it — I did a lot of legal research. I had many conversations with teachers and parents about how to involve their children and how to have appropriate discussions with their classes about what was happening."

No change to old curriculums

The students were protesting the fact that the newly elected Ford government decided to retract the most recent sex education curriculum, bringing back an old curriculum from 1998.

"The graduating class wasn't even born 1998, there are no mentions of consent, of cyberbullying, of sexting [in the old curriculum]," said Arscott.

"I believe sex ed is not just about sex, it teaches us so much about ourselves, and the world around us …  it needs to be updated, and needs to be available to students."

In addition, the students were also protesting the cancellation of the Truth and Reconciliation writings sessions, which was an event that was to take place in the summer, bringing together residential school survivors and educators to improve the current Indigenous history curriculum.

"When I heard about these happening, I was like, 'Wow okay this is progress, these are changes that are going to be made in my time, I might even see these changes happening in my own classroom,'" said Arscott.  

"But the Friday before the Monday they were supposed to happen, Doug Ford who had only been in office for, it couldn't have been more than two weeks, decided they weren't priority anymore and decided to cancel them."

Dozens of Toronto students marched along Queen Street West during walkouts dubbed 'We the students do not consent.' (John Rieti/CBC)

This upset Arscott, because they believe the current history curriculum gives very little space to Indigenous history.

"I think [the curriculum is] ridiculous … the last bit of [Indigenous] history I got was in Grade 10, and I believe we covered Indigenous history in three days," said Arscott.

"Indigenous students can feel really lonely when talking about these things, and feel like they have a lot of pressure on them to have all the answers."

Worried about repercussions  

Before the march, Arscott said they started receiving messages from students nervous about participating in the walk out. But their mom inspired them to stay the course.

"I have the most supportive parents in the world… when students were coming to me saying that their schools were threatening to suspend them … I was like, 'Mom I'm kind of scared, I don't want people going through trouble because of me."

"She said, 'You got all these people together, you got to stand with them.'"

Arscott has one message for Indigenous students who are afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

"Reclaim your power. I think we have a responsibility to fight for all of those that come after us, just as those who came before us fought for us," said Arscott.

"People are going to try to tear you down, but your voice has so much power and has so much capability to make an impact."