The Sex Ed Revolution: A portrait of the powerful political bloc that’s waging war on Queen’s Park
Azeem Mohammed, a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad from East York, is the school council chair at Thorncliffe Park Public School. It’s a volunteer position that he takes very seriously. Azeem and his wife, Sufia, are Muslims from Hyderabad, India. They left comfortable jobs overseas so their children could get a better education in Canada. Sufia teaches physiotherapy at a college in Scarborough. Azeem has two master’s degrees, but he stopped working three years ago to care for the kids—three girls and a boy, all under 10. The Mohammeds are active members of the Liberal party, and both voted for Kathleen Wynne in the last election. As they learned more about the impending sex ed curriculum, however, they began to have serious doubts.
On February 23, moments after Minister of Education Liz Sandals unveiled the curriculum at a Queen’s Park press conference, Azeem went online to read it for himself. He scrolled through 239 pages, looking for offensive content. Then he did a search. “I looked for one word: pleasure,” he explains. He discovered passages about understanding what gives you pleasure, the benefits of relationships, and how to make safe and healthy decisions about sexual activity. For Azeem, the very presence of the word was a deal-breaker. Why would a so-called educational document need to tell children about sexual pleasure? Why not just stick to the biological facts? The search revealed enough information to confirm his worst fears. “I got everything I was looking for,” he says. That’s when Azeem Mohammed became an anti–sex ed activist.
Last winter, the subject of sex ed exploded like a supernova in Ontario. It was discussed on Punjabi drive-time radio, featured on Chinese talk shows, described in apocalyptic terms in community newspapers distributed at strip malls and supermarkets. In churches and mosques across the GTA, anti–sex ed activists organized information sessions to teach other parents about the contents of a document they deemed immoral, radical and dangerous. On Facebook and the messaging app WeChat, groups began sprouting up with interchangeable, family-oriented names—Parents Alliance of Ontario, Parents as First Educators, Coalition of Concerned Parents. They were often led by people with little experience in activism, and quickly attracted thousands of passionate members, who shared articles critical of the curriculum and organized rallies. “This is not a sex education curriculum but rather a sex promotion curriculum,” wrote a member of Parents Against Ontario Sex Ed Curriculum, a Facebook group with over 5,700 followers.
The rallies seemed to take the province by surprise. In March, Chinese-Canadian protesters shut down a sex ed information session led by Liberal MPPs in Scarborough. A month later, thousands showed up at Queen’s Park to noisily demand the Liberals revert to the old curriculum. And on May 4, the Mohammeds were among thousands of GTA parents who pulled their kids from school as part of what they called a “student strike.” In Toronto, almost 35,000 kids stayed home that Monday, with thousands more absent in Peel and York regions. At the Mohammeds’ school in Thorncliffe Park, only 130 of the 1,350 students showed up for school that first day. For an entire week, classrooms sat almost empty while the nearby parks were swarming with kids. “Unfortunately, the children will be the ones who miss out on their learning,” Sandals said at the time.
Five years ago, when Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals tried (unsuccessfully) to update the sex ed curriculum, the loudest howls of outrage came from the same white, Christian social conservatives who show up to protest gay marriage and abortion. This time, the protests have primarily been led by new Canadians: Muslims and Sikhs from the outskirts of the city, Chinese evangelicals from Thornhill and Markham, Coptic and Russian Orthodox Christians from Scarborough and Peel. Sex education has created unlikely alliances between groups who rarely find themselves on the same side of an issue, with new Canadians from around the globe finding common cause with each other and native-born conservatives not generally known for their welcoming views on immigration. The result is something new in Ontario: a multicultural army of social conservatives who are angry, energized and eager to test their political power.
The Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum is a government document outlining the required learning plan, grade by grade, for every student in the province. It’s written in the high-minded, almost comically sensitive language of the liberal educator. Sex ed is just one small section of the document, which also includes discussions about mental health and chapters on cultural sensitivity. It has sections about proper eating habits, lessons on maintaining a healthy body image and carefully considered paragraphs about the best possible way to jump. (“When you are in the air, squeeze your muscles so your body stays in control,” it instructs.) Not surprisingly, most of this content has gone completely unnoticed. The pages about sexuality, however, have been endlessly dissected—fretted over, glorified or hopelessly distorted, depending on the reader.
When it comes to sex, the new curriculum introduces a few major changes. In Grade 1, students learn the names of their genitalia, including penis, testicles, vagina and vulva (the old curriculum wasn’t so specific). Because kids’ bodies are developing at a younger age than in previous generations, they learn about puberty in Grade 4 instead of Grade 5. The curriculum covers affirmative consent and the dangers of sexting. Where the old version avoided the words “gay,” “lesbian” and “homosexual,” the new one introduces students to same-sex couples in Grade 3 and addresses gender identity in detail in Grade 9.
For the most part, the changes bring Ontario in line with other provinces. Ontario students will learn about puberty a year earlier than students in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but they’ll learn about their anatomy a year later than kids in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba. Ontario’s new curriculum is more progressive than its counterparts in much of the U.S., where a third of teenagers have never received formal instruction about birth control, but less so than in the Netherlands, where learning about healthy sexuality starts in kindergarten.
According to the government, the new curriculum is based on hard facts. “We’re just keeping up with the public health data,” says Liz Sandals. And the facts indicate that 22 per cent of Grade 9 and 10 students have had sex and that the chlamydia rate in teenagers has jumped 80 per cent in the past two decades. “The evidence overwhelmingly shows that if you give kids information as their bodies are changing, they’ll make better decisions and actually delay sexual activity,” she adds. The ministry created the document after surveying the school council chairs at all 4,000 elementary schools in Ontario.
Jotvinder Sodhi was one of the parents surveyed. He’s a father of two who works as a quality assurance technologist at a factory that makes injection mouldings. He’s never been shy about making a fuss. Two years ago, when Sodhi moved into a new subdivision carved out of the northern edge of Brampton, he noticed deficiencies in the design of his house. He spoke to his neighbours, found they had similar complaints, and launched a homeowners’ association to fight the developers.
The sex ed questionnaire, he says, was hopelessly general. Instead of revealing the specific details of the curriculum, it asked parents to indicate whether they agreed with statements like “It is important to me that my child(ren) are exposed to all kinds of diversity through the school curriculum”—the kind of benignly vague sentiments that anyone would agree with. The surveys, Sodhi believes, were a sham that allowed the government to say they’d consulted parents without actually doing so. “I feel guilty,” he says. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have scrapped that paper.”
I spoke to Sodhi on a Saturday in June as he relaxed after spending the week working during the day and attending sex ed strategy meetings at night. Sodhi came to Canada from the Punjab region of India in 1999 with his wife, Kulwinder. The couple have a 13-year-old daughter, Jasmine, who, Sodhi proudly told me, recently appeared on the CBC promoting an app she is co-creating to help autistic students learn math. They also have a 15-year-old son named Karamjot—a tall, baby-faced kid with a wisp of a moustache, who brought us two glasses of water, carefully balanced on a tray.
Like many sex ed protesters, Sodhi isn’t a stereotypical Conservative voter. He’s a former Liberal from a Sikh community that has, until recently, been a stronghold for the party. He’s drawn to causes where individuals are pitted against larger forces, like massively wealthy housing developers or indifferent governments.
On the topic of sex ed, however, he is staunchly conservative. When he read the new curriculum, he was appalled that kids in Grade 1 would be asked to learn the names of their genitalia when they should be practising the alphabet. He was outraged by what the document leaves out: any mention of the word “love” or lessons about the benefits of marriage. And he was angry with Kathleen Wynne, who claimed that anti-gay sentiment was at least partially driving the protests. “Kathleen Wynne talks about bullying?” he says, leaning in. “She’s bullying us by calling us homophobes.”
Sodhi quickly transformed his homeowners’ association into a lobby group and began holding meetings in Brampton, rallying opposition to the new curriculum. Most of the time, Sodhi is quiet and circumspect. When he speaks about sex ed, he gets heated, his voice hitting a higher register as he attacks the government’s “radical sex agenda.” Sodhi is not a natural politician or public speaker. Last year, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on Brampton regional council. But he’s passionate, and with the sex ed curriculum—a subject that hits parents at a visceral level—he has found a willing audience.
While Sodhi was mobilizing the Sikh community, he was also connecting allies online. He found old-guard social conservatives—people like provincial Conservative Monte McNaughton and former school trustee Sam Sotiropoulos—as well as grassroots organizers in distant parts of the city. Sodhi says opposition to the curriculum has helped him break across racial and religious lines that can sometimes seem impermeable. “When Muslim members come to our meetings, we take a five-minute break for their prayers. Christian members come. Jewish members come. Can you imagine?” he says, eyes wide. “That it would ever happen, these things? It’s happening every day now.”
One of the parents setting up her own ad hoc lobby group was Christina Liu. She’s a 41-year-old language teacher who came to Canada 12 years ago from China, where political activism is not something one does casually. Liu and her husband, an IT programmer, have a nine-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter. Until now, she’s been too busy working and raising her kids to get involved in politics.
She says the dangers of the sex ed curriculum pushed her to action. The new curriculum isn’t mandatory. Parents who object to the material are allowed to remove their children from sex ed classes. But that puts the onus on them rather than the province. “We pay taxes, so we’re entitled to ask for the right curriculum,” Liu says. “Why should I correct the government’s mistake by pulling my kids out? Why don’t you correct the curriculum?” Some people are worried that removing their kids from sex ed classes will make their children vulnerable to bullying, or that the students who learn about sex will immediately share their second-hand information with the rest of the class.
Liu used WeChat, a popular app in China, to recruit more than 3,000 people to her advocacy group. On March 12, she organized a protest at a public information meeting that was being held at Agincourt Collegiate. Hundreds of people came out, chanting and holding signs reading “Too early too soon.” The result was ugly: a room of people yelling at the Liberal MPPs who had organized the meeting, then arguing with other parents. Eventually the MPPs were forced to shut down the session. A few weeks later, the leaders of various anti–sex ed groups from across the GTA met for the first time, in a community centre in Mississauga. Liu was thrilled to find so many people from different parts of the city—and the world—all working toward the same goal. “It finished around 9:30, but people still didn’t want to go,” Liu says. “We were so happy to see each other.”
Since then, she has been working up to 10 hours a day on this issue—organizing rallies, printing up posters, chartering buses to protests. Liu is Christian, part of a growing group of Chinese evangelicals who congregate in plazas and mega-churches across north Toronto. Like Sodhi and Mohammed, Liu and her husband left an entire life behind for the sake of their children’s education. “We thought that in this society, you make sure your kids have very good academic achievement and they will find a job and get married,” Liu tells me. “Now we realize we have to be actively involved to protect our rights.”
I met Liu at a Tim Hortons in a Thornhill plaza next to a Congee Queen and a Montana’s. She wore a tank top and flip-flops, pink highlights streaking her hair. At the end of our conversation, Farrah Ng, a 22-year-old Ryerson grad with chunky black glasses, interrupted us. “Sorry, I overheard you guys talking about the sex education program,” she said. “I appreciate that you’re advocating against that.” Ng had heard about the new curriculum through her church and believes it contravenes everything she’s ever learned. “We value gender as in a man being created as a man and a female being created as a female, in the Bible,” she said.
“Do you use WeChat?” Liu asked. She tapped her phone. A QR code appeared and Ng scanned it—another member to add to a growing movement. Liu beamed. “You see?” she said triumphantly. “That’s how you get members. Even when you are in Tim Hortons you find people who are against the curriculum.”
“Can I pray for you, Christina?” Ng asked. She clasped Liu’s hand. “Dear Heavenly Father. We thank you Lord for providing Christina in our lives. We ask that you move in her heart and continue to help her advocate against this. We pray this in the name of Jesus.” Liu thanked her and went on her way—off to order flyers before heading to another information session.
Sex education has always been plagued by two contradictory fears: what might happen if kids remain ignorant, and what they might get up to if they learn the truth. During World War II, advocates pushed for a provincial sex ed plan to stave off the wave of venereal disease spread by returning soldiers. It materialized in 1948, when a teachers’ committee proposed a “Family Life Education” curriculum for Ontario students in grades 7 and 8 that would include information about menstruation and intercourse, gestation and childbirth. The emphasis then, as now, was on harm prevention. And just like today, critics attacked the curriculum for teaching biological facts without ethical instruction. “To initiate children of 12 and 13 into the mysteries of the sex function in human life without providing them with at least some idea of the need for moral discipline is courting trouble,” read a Globe and Mail editorial. A group of teachers protested, and the proposal was shelved. An official sex ed curriculum wasn’t instituted for almost two decades.
Advocates for the new curriculum tend to present it as a simple matter of modernization. The document hasn’t been changed since 1998. It’s an artifact of a pre-Facebook, pre-smartphone era. A new version, the argument goes, simply updates the facts about sex the same way a new science curriculum updates the facts about Pluto. But a curriculum is not a value-neutral document. It’s an expression of a society’s principles, a means of shaping the world by declaring what citizens of the future must know. It needs to be updated, not because technology has changed, but because our values have changed.
When critics attack the new curriculum for not containing the word “love” and not spending enough time discussing marriage, they’re pushing back against society’s shift toward secular liberalism. The coalition between native-born conservatives and new Canadians is part of a larger international trend, according to Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University. “The major inhibitor in sex ed is globalization,” says Zimmerman. “The more people move across borders, the more problematic it becomes to create any kind of consensus around something like sex education.”
Left-wingers tend to dismiss the protests as the product of ignorance or Conservative party manipulation or fanatical lunacy. And some parents are misinformed about the content of the curriculum. Others are confusing the core curriculum (material that must be taught) with the non-mandatory “prompts” meant to help teachers answer questions that might arise—about masturbation, vaginal lubrication and anal sex, for instance. Last winter, an anonymous letter in Arabic was posted throughout Peel Region, warning parents that kids would learn to reveal their private parts in Grade 1 and that “Grade 6 is about the promotion of self-discovery through masturbation.”
But despite the fear-mongering and propaganda, most of the protesters I spoke to knew exactly what they were fighting against: a curriculum that treats premarital sex as a pragmatic reality instead of a sin, that describes masturbation as normal and healthy, and that reflects without judgment the various sexual and gender identities that exist in this province. To write off parental concerns as ignorance is to avoid the uncomfortable reality that many Torontonians have values that are impossible to square with this kind of curriculum—values that don’t change the minute you get off a plane. Toronto’s much-touted multiculturalism goes deeper than restaurants and festivals. Real diversity means diverse opinions about fundamental principles. And sex education, with all its thorny attendant issues around how to raise children and how to think about your body, whether to stay celibate and who to love, is one place where these divergent principles clash most dramatically.
The rallying cry at protests last winter was “My child, my choice.” Parents believe that the government is forcing sexual material on children who aren’t ready for it. “The biggest sin of this curriculum is that it treats kids as miniature adults, assuming that they have fully developed logic, that they have reason,” says Ghada Melek, a Coptic Christian who came to Canada from Egypt and now works as a senior manager at a large accounting firm. “My nine-year-old still doesn’t know the word vulva,” Christina Liu told me. “If you give kids the terminology, what they’ll do is look it up.”
Both Liu and Jotvinder Sodhi warned me about what happens when you look up the word “vulva” on YouTube. One of the first search results is an ad for a scent called Vulva Original. In it, a blonde woman gyrates in a bra and underwear, wriggling out of her panties before holding them to her face and, in a gesture that is perhaps less appealing than intended, giving them a deep, sensual sniff. Liu showed me screenshots from the video. “Do you think a six-year-old should watch this?”
I said I didn’t. The video is unsettling and erotically perplexing for an adult man, let alone a curious Grade 1 student. Of course, a woman squirming around in a bra is the top search result for just about any word you enter into YouTube. Search for “girl” and you get “Girl Walks Around NYC With No Pants!” followed by a comedy short featuring a blonde sex worker and her customer going at it in a variety of positions. Innocently type in “mom,” and “My Friend’s Hot Mom”—a video that exhibits problematic ideas about both friendship and motherhood—appears at the top of the list.
The new curriculum is premised on the idea that this kind of content is unavoidable in 2015. “I’m not sure parents are aware of the changes that have occurred since they went to school,” says Gerri Gershon, the trustee for Don Valley West. “I’m talking about the Internet and the media in general. Kids are exposed to so much more than they were at a much earlier age.” She thinks the best thing we can do is give students sensible, accurate information, because it is impossible for parents to police their children 24 hours a day. For many of the parents I spoke to, however, this attitude is defeatist.
When I asked Azeem Mohammed, the father of four from Thorncliffe Park, whether he genuinely believes it’s possible to shield his children from talk of sex, he didn’t miss a beat. “Yes,” he said flatly, as if I’d just asked the stupidest question in the world. The Mohammeds describe themselves as active parents. They have controls on the Internet and monitor their children’s activities. Azeem talks disdainfully about parents who let their kids use cellphones, who don’t check the contents of their knapsacks when they return home from school.
Like all the protesters I spoke to, he told me that the demonstrations were driven by love for their children, not any kind of hate. Still, the undercurrent of homophobia has been impossible to ignore. The parents I interviewed had read the curriculum backward and forward and could quote it chapter and verse. Their interpretation, however, seemed uncharitable at best, ascribing sinister motives to passages so blandly innocuous, it was difficult to believe we were looking at the same document.
At various points, the curriculum encourages students to go to a “trusted adult” for help. This, some protesters told me, is an attempt to lure kids away from their parents or, even worse, to empower teachers who might have dark designs on their children. In conversation after conversation, parents spoke about the dangers of anal sex. It was drastically disproportionate to the reality of the curriculum, which raises the subject in a section of optional teacher prompts. Even then, it’s only mentioned in the context of abstaining or avoiding STIs.
In protests and online messages, parents talk about “indoctrination.” Others, like Jotvinder Sodhi, feel that the curriculum forces kids to think about gender and sexual identity too early. “Let’s say my son likes pink,” he remarked. “You are saying, ‘Oh, you like pink?’ Then you’re slowly moving toward, ‘Oh, you may be a girl now.’ ” I told him that seemed like a bit of a jump. “It’s not a jump. It’s not a jump!” he said, his voice rising. “You have books in classrooms that have two mothers, two fathers! Why is that agenda being taught in the schools?” Some kids may have same-sex parents, Sodhi acknowledged, but why should that minority dictate what happens in the entire class? “If one kid is sick, do you treat the whole classroom?”
Many parents worry that the curriculum is not simply acknowledging the reality of homosexuality, but somehow inculcating their children, encouraging them to become gay. “It’s not just reading the lines, but reading between the lines,” Azeem Mohammed explained to me. And between the lines, protesters see evidence of a radical curriculum—a sexually permissive agenda led by a gay premier.
On a bright Sunday in June, more than 2,000 people gathered on the grass in front of Queen’s Park. The demonstration was the first event held by the coalition of protesters, now officially united under the umbrella group Canadian Families Alliance. The day had a festival atmosphere, with families picnicking on blankets, grandmothers eating sunflower seeds, girls in head scarves dribbling basketballs. In one corner of the park, Muslim men knelt on prayer rugs, facing Mecca. On a blanket a few metres away, Chinese-Canadian Christians sat in a circle, praying together.
Throughout the afternoon, yellow school buses pulled up to Queen’s Park, unloading families from Flemingdon Park and North York, Brampton and Mississauga. Farina Siddiqui, a Mississauga activist, was moderating the event, standing before the crowd in a purple hijab and boxy sunglasses. After broadcasting the national anthem, she took to the microphone to remind the group that they were there as concerned parents. “There should not be any anti-gay or anti-religion language,” she told the crowd. “We need to show our Canadian values.”
The mandate for moderation lasted about five minutes. “Kathleen Wynne has turned our schools into an unsafe place for our children,” thundered Maggie Amin, one of the leaders behind the Canadian Families Alliance. “A place where transgenderism will be promoted on our children. A place where gender fluidity is promoted.” Her voice boomed through the park, echoing from speakers that had been set up every few metres. “We are not homophobic. We live side by side with the LGB. But how is it fair that such a minority, in order to have or gain acceptance and affirmation from society, that we, our children, this generation, is indoctrinated into their lifestyles? HOW IS THAT FAIR?” As the crowd cheered, Amin handed out buttons: “I’m a girl, don’t confuse me” in pink and “I’m a boy, don’t confuse me” in blue.
As the afternoon wore on, speaker after speaker came to the microphone. Christina Liu read from a single sheet of paper, her voice wavering with passion as she called on the assembled to fight for their parental rights. Jotvinder Sodhi delivered a rambling speech, becoming slightly flustered and veering off track to lament the way the Wynne government’s radical sex agenda had been forced on the province’s kids. “They are so young, they are so innocent,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion. “Why does Kathleen Wynne want to break their innocence at such a young age?”
After hours of speeches, the crowd assembled to march down University Avenue. At the head of the parade, Sodhi and Siddiqui clambered onto the back of a rented flatbed truck, joining other organizers at the forefront of a new movement. As the caravan began to move, a man on the truck led the crowd in a call-and-response chant. “Kathleen loser,” he yelled, his voice raspy after an afternoon of shouting.
“Loser, loser!” the crowd answered back.
“Liberal loser!” he shouted.
“Loser, loser!” said the crowd.
“Lesbian loser!” he shouted, before another organizer hurriedly wrestled the microphone away from him. The truck rolled on and the chants resumed. “We say no! We say no!”
Organizers believe the sex ed curriculum could be the first issue for a new bloc of voters. Already, many parents are threatening to home-school their children. At the rally, a private Islamic school handed out flyers advertising for September. Come fall, Azeem Mohammed vowed, Thorncliffe Park Public School will be a ghost town. Sodhi envisions a populist uprising of families who have been left out of the political process. “Do you think I was a leader before?” Sodhi asked. He rhymed off a list of activists from across the GTA who have emerged from these protests. “Do you think they were leaders before? This is new blood. And new blood willing to do something for society.”
So far, the Liberal government hasn’t budged. School boards will start teaching the curriculum this month and parents will be free to remove their children from class. The opposition parties have also disappointed the protesters, with the Conservatives slowly distancing themselves from the cause. The movement will need to regroup. “Parents will never stop until this is corrected,” Christina Liu warned me. But the political fight was looking increasingly hopeless.
In the larger battle, too, it was difficult to imagine the parents at Queen’s Park having much success. The idea that a curriculum will indoctrinate straight kids into becoming gay is absurd, but the fear that your children will one day come home with alien values is very real. The five-year-old girls holding signs that read “Keep me innocent” and the boys scuffing soccer balls through the thick grass—these kids won’t inherit all of their parents’ beliefs and prejudices. The story of second-generation kids battling their parents, of old-world beliefs bumping up against new, is a familiar one, a wrenching transition that’s at the heart of the immigrant experience and much larger than any curriculum. Only rarely, however, do you get to see those foreign values written down in black and white, in a single government document you can hold in your hand, point to, and declare: “We say no.”