Submitted anonymously to North Shore
Only a few weeks into his time as Premier, Doug Ford has already moved on a key promise he made to social conservatives while securing the Progressive Conservative party’s leadership nomination. By canceling the sexual education reform and restoring the 1998 curriculum, Ford has provoked some significant popular anger. This is interesting because the level that people feel impacted by this is much more than at other moments around the same issue, for instance, in 2010 when Dalton McGuinty’s government proposed and then withdrew a very similar reform, or in 2015 during consultations by the Wynne government to write the new curriculum
In large part, this can be explained by Ford’s hateable face, but also by his willingness to hand wins to the religious right. That he is emboldening and bringing in the same groups that push an anti-queer and anti-women agenda more broadly makes this a much larger threat than just an issue of curriculum.
In this short text, I want to pose a couple of questions for us as we move ahead on this issue: what are the possibilities of a grassroots response? Is canceling the reform actually going to change anything? And how can we think about the groups behind the campaign that led to the cancellation? (For details about the reform and its cancellation, see links at the end)
There were already queers, radicals, and feminists organizing to plug into the sex-ed portion of the school curriculum. This wasn’t a mass effort, but there has been for a long time a constellation of volunteer and not-for-profit groups that support teachers in providing quality sex-ed content or talking about consent or LGBTq issues in schools. It sounds like many people are seeing the value and urgency of this work now and are trying to organize themselves to either get into classrooms or provide after-school programming or printed resources.
This is direct action and it’s a very positive step. However, the scale of the problem is very large and its unlikely that decentralized groups focused on service provision will be able to make a dent. In Ontario, there are 125,000 teachers working in almost 5000 schools with a budget of 23 billion dollars.
The Liberals and NDP (and their supporters) will point to this problem of scale when arguing that the only answer is to support them, in the Canadian tradition of social progress coming from the top. However, we can understand the problem differently and ask if we really accept a situation where the state has almost total authority to decide what children learn and how.
There is a lot that has been written in critiquing the mainstream, state-centric education model: that it is most concerned with authority and obedience, that it is homogenizing, that it seeks to make docile workers rather than well-rounded individuals, that it reproduces class society, that it is a key tool in cultural hegemony, that it breaks apart other forms of community and rebuilds us as a mass… This might be a moment to dream a bit bigger than just a pressure campaign about curriculum.
At times, there have been very interesting FreeSkools in Ontario, providing free (like freedom) and decentralized education, mostly aimed at adults. Like in many places, there are also large networks of parents unschooling or homeschooling their kids in response to critiques like those described above. Are there skills, tools, and analyses in these experiences that could be brought to bear alongside the specifically sex-ed work comrades have been doing that could provide a vision for what taking grassroots control over school, schooling, and education can be?
It’s also possible that the issue of sex-ed in schools is being overstated. Social movements in Ontario have very little autonomy from political parties and unions, which can make it hard to tell when an issue is actually critical and when its just being mobilized as a partisan wedge. After all, the new curriculum never came into effect, so Ford’s cancellation of the reform is a status-quo move. Definitely, there was real reason to be excited about the changes and having a provincial government that caters to reactionaries is a cause for concern. But materially, the situation around sex-ed is the same as last year. [NS Note: As the commentor below points out, it does seem that the sex-ed reform was implemented in the previous school year]
When I went through school, I started under the sex-ed curriculum that the 1998 one replaced: I got an explanation of what kinds of touching might be inappropriate in grade 3, the full anatomy lesson and where babies come from in grade 4, and discussion of puberty in vague terms in grade 6. In high school however, ostensibly under the 1998 curriculum, my whole school, in the public board, got abstinence-only education, anatomy that talked about the skeletal and muscular systems but not ovaries and testicles, and the only discussion of sex or dating was when the gym teacher put on a film about hockey bros hooking up with girls in Alaska.
All that to say that if teachers in my high school could fall so far short of the 1998 guidelines, then probably there were other teachers already exceeding it and teaching about how some people are gay, gender is complicated, consent is a thing, and that sex can be fun. And very likely individual teachers still are able to do so if they feel that they can get away with it and have the supports they need.
One aspect of this that’s particularly interesting is the composition of the movement against the sex-ed reforms. Although the movement is heavily and explicitly Christian, there is large and visible participation by conservative Muslims. Their campaign against the sex-ed reform has been ongoing since 2010 – it’s worth asking how much this multicultural alliance of religious reactionaries has been a factor in the far-right’s failure to import the kind of anti-Muslim organizing that has occurred in Quebec.
The only people involved in the anti sex-ed campaign in my life are Muslims and both of them were already pulling their kids out of the sex-ed classes under the old curriculum, as were some religious Christians (who also gravitated towards religious private schools). What do they gain by restoring a curriculum they were already boycotting?
Perhaps this campaign, through its truly shocking levels of dishonesty, managed to present the sex-ed reforms as so radical that families who had not objected to the old curriculum now do. The biggest wedge issue here is homosexuality – the movement against the reform is unapologeticaly homophobic, and much of their discourse claims that the curriculum is teaching children to enjoy anal sex. Certainly public acceptance of non-hetero couples has increased a lot in the past 20 years, so perhaps this is something of a last stand for social conservatives on this issue.
Understanding the composition and goals of the conservative religious movement that coalesced around sex-ed is important, especially if the coalition manages to hold together and turn its sights on other issues – are we likely to start seeing protests outside of abortion clinics again, which were banned under a year ago by the Wynne government? How about the protests that attempted to disrupt Pride events across South-western Ontario? Are they a continuation of the hundreds of rallies against the sex-ed curriculum? Some of those big signs about sodomy look pretty familiar…
Handing a win to this coalition of religious assholes is probably the biggest aspect of the cancellation. Finding ways to target and disrupt the groups behind the campaign will be important if Ford really does go ahead with fresh consultations and the drafting of a new curriculum.
The Doug Ford era is just getting started. Rather than rushing into each issue with urgency, it’s a good time to go slow and take stock of where we stand. The kinds of organizing that shut down the province against Mike Harris twenty years ago are a distant memory, so if we’re going to get ourselves in a position to actually stop anything Ford wants to do, we’re going to have to put time into building networks and deepening our analysis. Finding direct action responses to the sex-ed cancellation that go beyond service provision and that are independent of partisan politics is a great starting point. Turning up the heat on the religious right is another. But the opening shots are fired and we’ve got four years to go.