Human Rights

New sex-ed curriculum doesn't move the dial enough: Imai

By Paul Russell, Contributor

The revised sex-ed curriculum for Ontario elementary students won’t please social conservatives or progressive parents upset with Premier Doug Ford after he scrapped the version introduced by the former Liberal government, says Toronto employment and human rights lawyer Mika Imai.

“I think people are confused about whether to be happy or not because it’s quite similar to what former premier Kathleen Wynne’s government introduced in 2015, but it also has some major drawbacks,” says Imai, an associate with Karimjee Law.

According to a CBC News story, the Progressive Conservatives spent more than $1 million on online consultations “only to release a new curriculum that is largely unchanged,” said Marit Stiles, the NDP education critic. She added the government “wasted a year playing politics with our kids well-being” while teachers worked from a 20-year-old teaching plan developed before the widespread use of the internet.

Under the new curriculum, sexual orientation is a mandatory topic in Grade 5 instead of Grade 6, but gender identity is pushed back to Grade 8, a move that disappoints Imai.

“There are some improvements with this curriculum, but I think its important that attention be paid to the fact that the government decided gender identity is still something thats not appropriate for a Grade 6 kid to learn about,” she says.

“Numerous people, including myself, have concerns about the decision to push it back to Grade 8.”

Many children, especially trans kids, are interested in exploring their gender identity at a much younger age than that, Imai says.

“Kids in early grades need to know these concepts because theyre curious about themselves, or their peers are starting to make fun of them,” she says.

Imai, along with co-counsel Marcus McCann, recently represented an 11-year-old trans girl, identified only as AB, at a hearing before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, who was challenging the repeal of the 2015 sex education curriculum.

“AB is a remarkable kid,” she says. “She knows herself, and is witty and courageous, and she was willing to leave her small Ontario town and come to Toronto to explain to the tribunal how Doug Fords messaging about gender identity has affected her.”

Imai says that messaging includes public announcements, as well as implicit statements, that get sent when the government reverts to a curriculum that doesnt include her identity.

“Going into Grade 6, AB and her classmates were supposed to learn about gender identity, but instead, that was ripped away from them,” she says.

Next year, AB will leave her small elementary school where she came out, and start at a much larger school where she doesn’t know most of her peers, Imai says.

“Naturally, she’s very apprehensive about going to that school because she knows that her classmates may not have been educated about gender identity and people like her,” she says. “Going to a new school is a big deal for any kid, but for AB, she doesn’t know if she will be accepted by her classmates and whether she will experience bullying and harassment.”

Imai says sex-education courses are always a bit behind the times since they have to make some concessions for socially conservative parents.

“The further back we push the topic of gender identity, the more the kids who need this information will suffer,” she says.

Imai says it is also troubling that, by moving gender identity to Grade 8, the Ontario government, is feeding into the perception that students should not learn about trans kids or that there is something wrong with them.

“It seems the government is afraid that somehow it is contagious, or that students who were going to identify with the gender they were assigned at birth are going to start identifying otherwise just because this concept was introduced to them,” she says.

Looking at the past year, Imai says is it easy for progressive parents and others to be disappointed at what the Ontario government has done.

“It also shows that sometimes we have to fight just to stand still, and thats the reality,” she says. “We have to continue and hope that with ongoing pressure, we can move the dial forward on this issue.”

Weeks before the tribunal was expected to release its decision, the Divisional Court decided the repeal of the 2015 curriculum and the return to the curriculum last used in 2010 does not discriminate against students, according to court documents. Because of that decision, the tribunal declined to continue its deliberations in AB’s case.

Imai says she was disappointed by that decision.

“The Divisional Court did not hear critical evidence from a kid who is directly experiencing the changes and the impact that has on her,” she says.

That could still happen, Imai says, as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has sought leave to appeal the Divisional Court decision, which could have implications for AB in the future.

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