Ontario leads with consent in new sex ed curriculum

Kids in Ontario will begin learning about consent in September, when a long-overdue update to the province's sex ed curriculum rolls out.

LizSandals-Consent
Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals.

If you have a child heading into grade seven in Ontario next year, expect some frank discussions about consent to be part of their sex education classes.

Almost 14 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls have already had intercourse by the time they reach age 15, according to a 2009 Statistics Canada Survey. So the province’s new health and physical education curriculum, released today by education minister Liz Sandals, is getting the consent conversation started early. The foundation for the grade-seven curriculum begins in grade two, with age-appropriate discussions building on the teaching from the previous year.

By the time school’s out for summer, grade-two students will have learned to “explain the importance of standing up for themselves, and demonstrate the ability to apply behaviours that enhance their personal safety in threatening situations.” This might include speaking confidently, respecting the right of people to say no and reporting improper touching, among other things. In grade three, the conversation shifts to healthy relationships, and in grade four, risks associated with technology (such as sexting) are explored.

In grade six, the conversation jumps forward: Kids will learn how to “make informed decisions that demonstrate respect for themselves and others and help build healthier relationships.” This helps set the stage for learning “the concept of consent and how consent is communicated” in grade seven.

The focus on consent comes as no surprise in the wake of high-profile allegations of sexual assault (including Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby) and growing conversation about sexual assault, harassment and abuse.

Unlike with past allegations, women aren’t quieting down; in fact, girls and women are loudly demanding change—and the province has been listening.

Leading the charge on pushing for consent were Ottawa high school students Tessa Hill and Lia Valente. They had lobbied the province to include consent in the updated curriculum, and after a January meeting with the girls, Premier Kathleen Wynne said that they are “awesome and articulate young women who were already working on this issue before it became such a hot topic in the media.”

Ontario’s sex ed. curriculum was in dire need of an update. School boards and teachers have been designing lesson plans based on a curriculum designed in 1998—long before kids were sexting, spreading sexual images and stories around the world via social media, and gaining easy access to porn on the web. Though former premier Dalton McGuinty’s plans to revamp the curriculum in 2010 fizzled after complaints from a vocal group of parents, premier Kathleen Wynne and education minister Liz Sandals have made it abundantly clear that they’re committed to this update in order to give kids the information they need.

While the content of the curriculum is bound to ruffle some feathers, Sandals says this curriculum simply brings Ontario “in line with the rest of the country,” with the notable exception of consent, which is where Ontario is poised to take the lead. “In having a very explicit conversation about consent as the children get older, and talking very explicitly with kids about what does consent mean and what do healthy relationships look like, I think that in that case we may become the leader,” says Sandals.

She added that in consultations, parents were very vocal about wanting consent to be included: “One of the things that we heard when we talked to parents is parents want us to talk to kids about consent and appropriate behaviour—and the fact that no means no, and only yes means yes,” says Sandals. This is why the ministry has already created a consent facts sheet for parents. (There’s also a sexting facts sheet available now, and more will follow.)

Planned Parenthood Ottawa president Lauren Dobson-Hughes welcomes the inclusion of sex ed. in Ontario’s new curriculum. “Planned Parenthood Ottawa has been teaching sex and relationship education in schools for many years,” she says. “Consent is the bedrock of our teaching, and needs to start early, in an age-appropriate way. We’re pleased to see a full discussion with youth about consent.”

Getting the conversation started early has significant benefits in the short- and long-term, notes Dobson-Hughes. “It’s important for preventing abuse, encouraging healthy friendships and setting the ground for healthy romantic relationships later in life.” And, she adds, teaching kids about consent also gives them guidance they’ll need in their teen years. “We need to give them tools, so they understand how to say no, how to negotiate and how to apply the law on consent to real situations they face in their lives.”

How does Ontario’s new curriculum stack up to other provinces?

Ontario’s new curriculum is enviable when it comes to explicitly taking about consent—other provinces teach concepts that give kids tools to make consent decisions, but they fail to direct teachers to use the term.

In BC, kids are taught how to say “no” in abusive or potentially abusive situations in grades two and three. They also learn about Internet luring in grade four, assertiveness in grade five, personal safety strategies in grade six, and the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships in grades seven and eight.

PEI deals with consent without specifically using that term. Students in grade seven learn about being assertive, setting limits, making decisions in sexual relationships as equal partners, “no means no,” and the fact that not making a decision is still a decision.

New Brunswick’s curriculum for grades six to eight focuses on refusal strategies, which puts the pressure to speak up on those who are uncomfortable, rather than encouraging the initiator to make sure his or her partner is consenting. It also fails to address the in-between area, when a person doesn’t say “no,” but also doesn’t say “yes”—a must for explicit consent.

In other provinces, the curriculum varies between emphasizing personal safety, protecting oneself, the “no means no” approach, and discussions of healthy and unhealthy relationships.

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