Dear Ontario Politicians,
First of all, I want to congratulate all of you on your wins in your ridings and your appointments to your new roles. Welcome to your new positions. Congratulations.
I know you’ve just started your jobs. It is probably overwhelming, as any new job is. It’s hard to start new things. But there are a lot of big changes ahead in this province, and I cannot just sit and hope the adjustment period is smooth for everyone while things happen that I can’t stomach. I did that when Justin Trudeau took office federally, and while not everything he’s touched has been horrible, I wonder if things would have been different if we, the people of Canada, had stood up sooner and voiced our concerns. I did the same thing with Kathleen Wynne, hoping that she could not possibly have as negative an impact as Dalton McGuinty, only to watch her carry on his legacy. I will not do it now.
I am an educator. I have been teaching for ten years, going into my eleventh. This is not a new game for me. To say that in the last few weeks I’ve grown concerned about what education will look like by the time I get back to it in the fall would be a dramatic understatement. In fact, concern isn’t anywhere close to the right word. I am afraid. I do not like to live in fear, but I see a lot of changes coming that are very negative for the children I work with.
This letter is long, so I will add some headings and subtitles, and below I will try my hardest to summarize my thoughts before I go into greater detail. The trouble I’m having with being succinct is that these are complex, difficult issues. They merit more than a paragraph each, and I want to make sure my voice is heard. But in the event that you simply cannot spare the time to read the whole text, please find my summary below, followed by an in-depth examination of the issues at hand.
- Please do not cancel the school repair fund. Schools are filled with asbestos, and they have heaters, washrooms, and water fountains that don’t work properly. Humidity makes it hard for students to work. Many aren’t adequately accessible for the needs we have in this province, which becomes a Human Rights issue. Students need to work and learn in comfortable work spaces that meet all of their needs.
- Please do not cancel the Indigenous Education addendum to the Social Studies, History, and Geography curriculums. These are important issues that students need to learn about. A great deal of time and money has already been spent on this issue, and it will go to waste if it is canceled. Trust has been built with the members of the Indigenous communities who helped create this addendum to add Indigenous perspective, and scrapping this addendum will communicate a message that money is more important than relationship and trust, adding further insult to injury for members of this community. Please find another way.
- Please do not scrap the Health and Physical Education curriculum. It is not a good use of money, as a great deal of money was already spent to create this researched, consulted, and approved document. I know there are many concerns from parents about it, but I have read it, and I read it again while I sat to write you this letter. Below I have gone into detail about the issues I’ve heard of. I strongly believe that the issues come from people who either have not read the document, or who believe that cancelling the document can cancel issues they do not agree with. This is a dangerous reversion for students in Ontario who need education on the issues of today — issues such as consent, harassment, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, culture, race, religion, body shape, substance abuse, and weight and healthy eating. The 2015 document teaches proper names for body parts, and proper developmental stages at the time students are developing. It gives students language for issues they face in 2018 that did not exist in 1998 like the internet, easy access to pornography, media, sexting, dating apps, online predators, cyberbullying, cyber stalking, and identity theft. OPHEA and OASPHE, the associations responsible for helping teachers deliver the health and physical education curriculum, are equally disappointed by this regressive shift.
It is my hope that you continue to read below. I spent hours writing this letter (which, admittedly, has turned into an essay), and I hope you will do me the courtesy of reading a letter from a concerned resident and educator of this province.
The School Repair Fund
The first issue that I want to address is the cancellation of the $100,000,000.00 school repair fund. This is a significant blow to students and educators. There are buildings filled with asbestos. There are buildings that are not accessible to those with disabilities, and denying this money to create those improvements is a Human Rights issue. Every student has the right to attend school, and I know of schools where there are no elevators but there are certainly many sets of stairs. There are buildings with leaks, heating that doesn’t work properly, poorly sealed windows, washrooms and water fountains that repeatedly malfunction, and the list goes on. The humidity alone in some of the classrooms I work in is unbearable during the hotter months. Kids try to focus. They try to get their work done. But you and I both know that it is hard to do when you sweat without moving. It is also hard to do when you’re very cold, and that is also a reality in some of Ontario’s classrooms. There is already a backlog of school repairs needing to be completed. School boards will need to draw money out of student programming just to complete necessary repairs. I understand that any work already started will be covered, but what about work that is still necessary?
“’Losing $25 million is a big deal to us,’ [Toronto District School Board Chair Robin Pilkey] said. ‘Our repair backlog is so large that every piece counts. We’ll have to make decisions in the next few weeks whether we don’t do those projects or we take the money out of … other funds and scrap something else.’” (source) This instance is just one example from the Toronto District School Board. This is merely one board of many.
The fund has disappeared because it was revenue from cap and trade. I understand that. What will replace the revenue that Cap and Trade provided the province? Canceling cap and trade because it was what the people wanted only works if we won’t have to lose every program and fund that we rely on as a province as a result. I personally am not interested in saving the expense of cap and trade if this is what it means. Ontario’s schools need investment, not cuts. I am disappointed that education seems to be the first place Ontario’s Conservatives go to make cuts. It happened under Mike Harris and it appears to be happening again.
Readers: Please click here to sign a petition to stop this withdrawal of funds organized by the Building Better Schools campaign.
The Indigenous Education Addendum
The second educational issue that concerns me is the immediate halt of the writing work and therefore the rollout of the Indigenous-focused addendum to the Social Studies curriculum. I am not Indigenous. But in my teaching role these past few years, I have been involved in significant learning that has shed light for me on why it is so important that our students in Ontario have an education that reflects actual history, and that contains the voices and perspectives of actual Indigenous people. When I learned social studies in elementary school, we barely talked about this issue. I knew there were people here before settlers arrived, and I knew there were problems that came out of settlement, but I came into my role as an educator with a lot of bias that I didn’t even know was bias. It was there because I was ignorant, and I was ignorant because no one had taught me what had really happened. Through the last few years of significant learning, I have developed empathy that has shifted my perspective from that of someone who thought this wasn’t my problem because it happened so long ago, to that of an ally who firmly believes that we need this education in our schools. I work in schools close to a federal reserve, and yet my experience in our schools has been that many students have no idea how that reserve came to be, what happens on the reserves, or how they work. They have no idea the impact that residential schools had on our Indigenous neighbours, and many have the attitude that I once had — “it happened so long ago. Why does it matter?” Well, it matters because the last residential schools closed a mere 22 years ago. That means that people who attended them may be my age or just a bit older than me. That is devastating to me.
The effects of such trauma are long-lasting, and have a major role to play in what our society currently looks like, but by cancelling the work on the addendum to the Social Studies curriculum, we are telling an entire people group that their history doesn’t matter. We have worked hard to build trust with Elders, Knowledge Holders, and survivors of Residential Schools. In order to help us educate correctly and properly, in a way that reflects what actually happened and the impact that it has had and continues to have, that group of people changed a lot of their plans over the summer, and had to drag up old memories I’m sure they would rather forget. This work was supposed to give us the necessary voices — voices of those with lived experience, the only ones really qualified to share their perspective — on issues such as residential schools, treaty issues, Inuit relocations, land sovereignty, The Sixties Scoop, The Millenial Scoop, and genocide of Indigenous people over the years since European settlement.
But the Ford Conservative government, very shortly after taking the reins, canceled all that work. What does that communicate to the Indigenous people who were helping us create an education system for our students that would tell truth, that would help reconcile, and that would create shared understanding? It likely tells them that their efforts do not matter, and that we never really wanted this reconciliation and understanding — that it was all imposed on us by the Liberal government and that now the Conservative government can’t afford it so we will just put it on hold another number of years.
How long is long enough to go without a solid understanding of this very important issue? What breaks my heart here is the knowledge that we have something almost within reach that will help communicate an Indigenous perspective clearly to students so that they can gain a well-rounded education that is inclusive of a big part of our country’s history, and it is being taken away from them. Students have a right to know what has actually happened in our country. In our province. In their own communities. I have since been on tours of former residential schools and sought to understand, but I feel that the curriculum we currently have is lacking the voice of those actually affected. I am perfectly capable of teaching history — it is what I studied and went to school to do. But I cannot share a voice and an experience that I didn’t live. I’ve taught Social Studies, and while there are currently points in the document that tell us to teach on Indigenous issues, I don’t have the knowledge or the understanding or the perspective to do it well. That is what we were trying to accomplish. Understanding breeds empathy. Empathy creates allies. We need to be allies. There are far too many injustices still occurring to our Indigenous people groups that could be aided by understanding and empathy, and where will students get that understanding if their parents and guardians went to school in a system that didn’t adequately teach the issues? I sure didn’t learn the issues adequately in school.
The Health and Physical Education Curriculum
The last issue — and I’m sure you can see this coming from the way I’ve been writing — I need to let someone know that I am devastated about the decision to scrap the Health and Physical Education curriculum of 2015. I need you to hear me when I say that this is not acceptable. The curriculum that was put in place in 2015 took nearly 5 years of research and consultation with experts, parents, educators, and older students to put in place. The curriculum that was put in place in 1998 is not an acceptable fallback. I am sure that it was researched and developed with experts as well, or at least I sincerely hope that it was. I was in Grade 8 when it was implemented. My “sex-ed” experience involved learning about my period, how pregnancy happens, and sexually transmitted diseases. I don’t remember all the details, since it was 20 years ago. My most vivid memories though were of being separated from the boys because it “wasn’t appropriate” for the boys to hear about female development and it “wasn’t appropriate” for girls to hear about male development. I didn’t learn the other side of it until I was in grade 9. By then, I already knew friends who were having sex. My “sex-ed” experience stopped after a two week stint of it in Grade 9 Health (part of Gym class) where I learned how to put a condom on a banana, and my teacher uncomfortably told us that the best way to avoid pregnancy and disease was to avoid sex. But I knew for a fact — we all did — that many in the room were already having sex, yet that is where the conversation ended. We were also still separated from the boys, because it was still “inappropriate” even though kids at this age were sexually active.
The curriculum put in place in 2015 includes elements like proper names for body parts, so that if students are being abused and/or touched inappropriately, they are able to tell a trusted adult in their life what is happening. Certainly not in all cases, but in many abuse cases, the parents or someone very close in a child’s family are the ones committing the acts of abuse. There is an argument I keep hearing that suggests that it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach a child the proper names for his or her body parts. That may be true, but it’s not always happening, and there’s no way to enforce that. There is a way to ensure that students have proper terminology — that is to teach it in schools. It may take a child longer to get the help they need if they don’t have the vocabulary to tell a trusted adult what is happening to them. Court proceedings are difficult if a young child is using vague terms to describe their genitalia, and the child does not know the proper terms. Of course, the abuse cases are not the majority, but I am having a hard time understanding why this is a bad thing.
Please click here to watch a video of a CUPE member sharing her experience about the value of this curriculum.
Another argument I have read against this document is that it encourages gender confusion and confuses children who weren’t already confused. As I have mentioned, I’ve been teaching for ten years. I have encountered one student with some gender confusion in that time. Teaching the students in this child’s class that this exists did not encourage any of the other children in the class to switch genders or to decide that they themselves were also confused. The accusation that teachers are indoctrinating children with a “homosexual and transgender agenda” is appalling and unfounded. That is not what is happening. What is happening is that students across Ontario learn that there are different expressions a person can identify with, and like I said about the Indigenous Curriculum Addendum, education kills ignorance, and the death of ignorance leads to empathy and understanding. Empathy and understanding fight against hate. Is that not a world we want to live in? I don’t need to share my own personal beliefs or feelings on the subject. They’re irrelevant. What students in this province need to learn is that regardless of their personal feelings or beliefs about a subject, every human being deserves dignity, respect, and to be treated well. The language in the 2015 document gives teachers ways to have conversations that are uncomfortable and awkward, and to do so in a way that respects all children. The same argument that goes “shouldn’t parents be allowed to teach their children their own beliefs at home??” is also applied to this topic. I would offer the same response. Yes, parents have every right to teach their children their own belief systems at home, but no child or person has a right to be hated or mistreated or harassed because who they are and what they believe does not line up with someone else’s belief system. There are many people in this world, in this province, in my community, even in my circle of friends whose lives don’t reflect my personal belief system. I still owe them dignity and respect because they are human beings, just as they owe it to me because I am a human being.
I have heard arguments that parents hate the new curriculum because it teaches 6 year olds about anal and oral sex. It does not do that. I am looking at my copy of the curriculum as I write this, and that is nowhere in the print. If a teacher were to teach this to six year olds, I would share those parents’ concerns. That is not age appropriate. The 2015 document does, however, address those concerns in the grade 7 portion of the document, where research has shown that it is happening. I’ve heard similar arguments about drugs — that it teaches six year olds how to do drugs. It also does not do that. Again, I am looking at the document as I write. It does, however, teach students in Grade 3 and older that some substances can be addictive and harmful to our bodies, and what the ramifications of those choices might be. It teaches students that it may be difficult for someone dependent on alcohol to take care of their families. This is truth. And this has been true for many students I’ve taught over the past ten years. This is also something that was never talked about when I was in school, despite the fact that it was happening all around us.
The only way these could have been the arguments is if people had not read the document. This is what I suspect is true of many people who take issue with the document — that they did not read it, and they reacted to sensationalized media (which is pretty much all media these days, on one side or the other) about it.
What the 2015 Health and Physical Education Curriculum does accomplish is to teach Grade 1 students the proper names for their body parts, hygienic procedures, food groups, personal safety (at home and in the community), and how our bodies work.
It teaches Grade 2 and Grade 3 students about allergies, respecting the differences of others, medication, bullying, standing up for yourself in a positive way, the dangers of too much screen time, violence, substance use and abuse, and emotional development and mental health. It highlights cultural food choices, so that an immigrant student in a class isn’t made fun of because her curry smells weird (this actually happened to one of my students in a grade 6 class).
In Grade 4, students begin to learn about puberty (which, for many students these days, is when it starts to happen), smoking, and the safe use of technology. The conversation about bullying increases, as does the bullying students face. When I was in school, our only conversation about bullying was not to do it. We did not talk about the different types. We did not talk about how to handle it, or at least not well. We were told to tell our peers “I don’t like it when you _______. It hurts my feelings.” That may be true, but a bully who sets out with intent to harm me is likely thrilled that whatever they did to me hurt my feelings, so my ‘I feel’ statement was usually incredibly ineffective. It typically increased the bullying and it was easier to just stay silent.
In Grade 5, the conversations about substance abuse escalate. Again, when I was in school, we did not talk about substance abuse. I knew many 12 year olds who were drinking and smoking. By grade 5, this is happening to our children, whether we like it or not. Not all of them, certainly, are smoking and drinking, but some are. And if some would avoid it because they knew what could happen to their bodies, is this not a good thing? The peer pressure may not be as strong for a student who understands the risks and consequences of such behaviour, and children are likely to take bigger risks in their friendships and report risky behaviour in their friends to trusted adults when they know the consequences. All I knew about alcohol growing up was that I wasn’t allowed to have it until I was 19. I didn’t know why. Grade 5 students also learn to discern media.
They are taught about how periods and spermatogenesis occur. This is not developmentally inappropriate. This is when it is happening in their bodies. Students are taught that these are natural processes that are not something we should be making fun of. Once again, education stamps out ignorance and a lack of ignorance breeds empathy. I would love to live in a world where a girl just learning to deal with having her period and new hormones isn’t made fun of for any emotional reaction to anything, and written off as being on her period. This was the argument used against us as children in school. If we were teased or made fun of, and expressed that we didn’t like it, we must have been on our periods because we couldn’t take a joke. The two are not synonymous, and perhaps if students are learning about what is actually happening in their bodies, they will not be so cruel to each other.
This 2015 curriculum gives language to students to help them overcome harassment because of gender identity, sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, body shape, weight, or ability. Again, I see nothing wrong with this. And again, anyone’s personal beliefs about or feelings on the items in this list should not be relevant. The fact is that students in Ontario schools are experiencing confusion around gender identity. They are exploring their sexual orientation. They are of different races and religions. They are differently abled. When I was in school, anyone with any type of disability was in a special class. They were not integrated into the mainstream classroom as they are now. My classmates and I were barely exposed to differences the way that students are now. Students must be taught how to handle that appropriately, and the 2015 curriculum does just that.
In Grade 6, students are also learning about emotional eating and making healthy choices around food. Given the rates of childhood obesity in our country, this is something that needs to be taught. They are learning about mental health, which research is showing again and again is majorly affecting children. The 1998 curriculum did not address this. Students learn about specific drugs and their effects. They do not learn, as I have seen suggested, how to do drugs and where to get them. These arguments are coming from people who have either not read the document or are willfully ignoring what it says, and I cannot understand why they would do that. Emotional and mental health become an increasing focus as students get older. This, once again, was not taught when I was in school. Students are given language about how to handle relationships. This was not addressed when I was in school. But students are in relationships by grade 6. Not all of them, but many. And some of those relationships are resulting in sexual activity. Giving students language to express themselves, what they want, and what they do not want is important. Taking the language in the curriculum away will not stop students from having sex at 12 years old. But it might stop someone from going too far without consent, whether that is because the no is clearly understood, or because someone knows they have a right to say it, no matter what. I understand that the idea of children having sex or being sexually active is uncomfortable to many. I don’t like it either. But my not liking it does not mean it stops. The only way to make sure it happens safely is to give students language and information.
Students learn about “the effects of stereotypes including homophobia and assumptions regarding gender roles and expectations, sexual orientation, gender expression, race, ethnicity or culture, mental health, and abilities, on an individual’s self-concept, social inclusion, and relationships with others, and propose appropriate ways of responding to and changing assumptions and stereotypes.” Again, this is not impacted by my personal beliefs, or anyone else’s. Whether or not we think the things that are happening are acceptable, they are happening. And when students are given language to address them, they can be more successful advocates for themselves and their peers. Taking the language in the curriculum document away does not make the issues students are facing go away.
In grades 7 and 8, students continue to learn about the benefits but also the dangers of technology. The 1998 curriculum did not include things like easy access to pornography, identify theft, dating apps, internet safety, cyberstalking, sexting, cyberbullying, or online gambling because those things did not exist. Reverting to a document written 20 years ago does students a significant disservice because it neglects the world that we live in. The world that we live in now is very different from the one I went to school in. The 2015 curriculum talks about consent, clear communication, and sexually transmitted infections. Again, I don’t remember ever talking about consent and clear communication when I was in school. We were taught that it was best to abstain. And at 12 years old, I don’t disagree. Abstinence is best. But if children are not going to abstain, because some students will not regardless of what we tell them, they need to know what they are doing, what the risks are, and how to do so in a way that does not harm the other participants. They also need to know that they have a right to say no at any time, regardless of what the other person wants. This article tells the story of a Nova Scotia man who believes that if his daughter had received a curriculum like the one that Ontario just lost, his daughter would still be alive. She committed suicide after the fallout from being raped. Mr. Parsons says “I really wished there was something like that in Nova Scotia 10 years ago. Because if there was — and if consent and empathy and respect were being taught in schools in Nova Scotia — I honestly believe that I would still have my daughter with me today.”
This issue goes beyond personal beliefs. This curriculum protects children by arming them with important information. The 2015 document talks about harassment and bullying in contexts that did not exist in 1998. To revert to this document is dangerous for students.
Further, Grade 9 is the only year in which physical education is a requirement in high school. This means that at a time when many students are becoming sexually active, they’re not actively being educated about it if they are not taking Physical Education classes beyond the requirement. This makes their elementary education critical on this subject. I didn’t take any physical education classes beyond grade 9, and I know many of my peers didn’t either. I hated gym class. But that was the only place the health was even taught. So if we have reverted to a document that cannot do justice to the issues of the 21st Century, students risk entering a time in their lives when many simply are sexually active without being armed with information to help them navigate it, because we will have used a 20 year old document to teach these issues before they got to high school.
OPHEA and OASPHE are equally disappointed in the revocation of the 2015 document and the reversion to the 1998 version. Here is just part of their statement.
“Ophea and OASPHE are the provincial subject associations for Health and Physical Education and believe the curriculum has the potential to positively impact the health of 2 million Ontario students by helping them develop the knowledge and skills to become healthy, productive citizens.
Ophea and OASPHE are disappointed with the announcement by the Government of
Ontario and believe that Ontario students have a right to learn from an up-to-date,
research-based Health and Physical Education curriculum that includes human development and sexual health “sex-ed” education.
Sexual health education should address current issues facing students including online safety, informed decision making (including consent), self-esteem, mental health, healthy relationships, respect for others, diversity and equity. The curriculum should reflect all students including those with visible/invisible differences as protected through the Ontario Human Rights Code and related provincial policies such as Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.
Sexual health education should be delivered in a developmentally appropriate manner and structured so that it meets the learning needs of students at different ages to build the skills they need to make healthy choices and protect themselves from potential harms.” (source)
Lastly, I understand that the Conservative government is interested in correcting the deficit and wastes of money that the Liberals left behind. This revocation, quite frankly, is a waste of money. This document took five years to create. It was consulted on, there was a lot of research put into it, parents and students were involved. Ontario’s students can’t afford to wait another five years for a new document to be put in place that the Conservatives feel is more appropriate when the current document is already designed to tackle the needs of the world our students live in. And Ontario’s taxpayers can’t afford to pay to do the process all over again when it was just completed three years ago and the document is doing its job. I beg and implore the Conservative government to rethink scrapping this document. Not starting again may even give you the money you need to leave the Indigenous Education addendum alone.
Please don’t think me naive here. I understand that this Conservative government has walked into a deficit and debt load that is unconscionable. After 15 years of Liberal leadership, there is a lot of work to be done. I understand that money has to come from somewhere, but I beg of you, the collective Conservative you, to please rethink what the cuts you make mean to education. What does this mean for the future generation of children coming through Ontario’s public schools? I was in school when Mike Harris was the Premier, and the cuts he made to balance the budget were devastating to my school experience. Programs were cut that I wanted and needed, all in the name of money. Are there not things that are more important than money? I understand that a budget needs to be balanced. Trust me, I know we cannot continue on the path we were on as a province and not suffer dire consequences for it. I know we could not afford most of the things that the Wynne Liberals put in place. I was not happy with that either, but I am not talking about partisan politics here. I am not interested in laying blame. The Conservatives have an official opposition in the NDP. Perhaps rather than seeing each other as working from opposite sides, which I understand that on many issues, you are… perhaps you could work together to find a solution that balances the budget and respects the programs and services you are trying to cut. Is there not a way to work together to come to a solution that works for everyone? Rather than forcing students to learn and work in buildings that are breaking down, can we not all work together to find a solution that stops the hemorrhage of money but also respects the work that was being done? Rather than revoke students’ ability to learn a culturally responsive Canadian history that has direct ties to today, can we not all find another way? Rather than waste money by taking away a document that addresses today’s needs, can we please find another solution? This is where I have to trust you, as our representatives in the Ontario Legislature, to stand up for what is right. I am not a politician. I don’t know what the solution to these issues could be. But I do know that for the sake of Ontario’s children, we need to find one.
Please consider standing up for Ontario’s students in your new roles as representatives of the people of Ontario. These students are under your umbrellas, too. They need you right now, and I hope you can see why.