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Ontario sex-education debate turns heated in Halton

Halton Catholic District School Board student trustee poses in front of his high school St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Secondary School in Oakville, along with fellow trustees, Chloe Kemeni and Jason Barron, on June 9, 2015. Louzado an openly gay Grade 12 Oakville student thinks that if young students are introduced to different sexual and gender identities to students as early as in Grade 3, when they learn some kids have gay parents, it would be easier to accept their own sexuality as well as being more tolerant of other people sexuality.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

When Joel Louzado first read through Ontario's new sex education curriculum, he began to tear up.

The openly gay Grade 12 student from Oakville, Ont., was moved that different sexual and gender identities would be introduced to students as early as in Grade 3, when they are taught that some kids have gay parents.

"Sexuality and gay people was not something that was talked about in school. It was something that I learned about from friends and I learned about online," said Mr. Louzado, a Halton Catholic District School Board student trustee. "If I had learned about it in school before I had to deal with it, I feel like it would have been a lot easier to come to terms with my own sexuality and accept myself."

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Mr. Louzado defended the curriculum last week at a HCDSB meeting as a motion by trustee Anthony Danko was debated to delay a year in implementing the curriculum, instead of starting it in September as required by the province. The motion was defeated, and the board called police to deal with parents yelling at each other in the lobby after the meeting.

Marcus Logan, executive director of LGBTQ youth support group Positive Space Network of Halton, brought Catholic school students who access his services to the meeting. He said some parents told the youth they would go to hell, and connected homosexuality to pedophilia. As tensions flared, one woman even threatened to punch another parent, Mr. Logan said.

"This is not Christianity. This is not love," he said. "I realize that what we experienced that night was a very small fraction of practising and faithful Catholic people and that does not, I feel, represent the Catholic people who I know."

No charges were laid and the crowd dissipated soon after officers arrived, Halton police said.

As in the rest of Ontario, polarized debates within the Halton Catholic school community surrounding sex education show no signs of subsiding. Although Catholic schools will implement a modified curriculum that teaches the same concepts in a faith-based context, many parents are unhappy about the inclusion of such topics as same-sex relationships and masturbation.

"The program that would have the legal authority in the schools would still be the ministry program. And we really feel that the content of that program is not suitable for Catholic schools," said Teresa Pierre, president of Parents as First Educators, a group opposed to the new curriculum. Even a modified curriculum provided by the Institute for Catholic Education is problematic, Ms. Pierre added, because it will still, for example, move some content into earlier grades, such as identifying genitalia in Grade 1. "The ICE program will follow the ministry's program closely enough."

The Ministry of Education is providing resources and experts to ICE and several other groups, such as the Ontario Principals' Council, to help school boards implement the sex-ed curriculum. ICE executive director Michael Pautler said the group is also in talks with the province about funding for teaching materials to help implement ICE's new curriculum in schools.

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"We haven't settled on a figure yet," Mr. Pautler said. "Certainly, there's been no money received from them to this point."

Parents are still determined to block the new curriculum, Ms. Pierre said, and will approach trustees and their local MPPs again in the fall.

"They may take the step of holding their children out of school. That's being talked about throughout the province right now," Ms. Pierre said.

In the face of that outrage, Mr. Danko introduced his motion, arguing Catholic boards are legally entitled to adapt a curriculum if it contradicts their faith.

"It would give a chance to address reasonable concerns that many people of many backgrounds have about this," he said, adding the fact that it has to be modified for Catholic schools proves the curriculum is not appropriate to begin with.

"If it's not suitable for Catholic children, it's not suitable for any children," Mr. Danko said.

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His motion failed to pass after the vote split evenly among eight trustees. Board chair Jane Michael broke the tie to go on the record opposing the motion, as parents yelled "Shame!"

"They're not writing a new curriculum, they're adjusting it to the 21st century," said Ms. Michael, who sought guidance from bishops and a lawyer before the meeting and was advised the province could place the board under supervision if it tried to delay implementing the curriculum.

Ms. Michael said she is confident ICE will deliver a modified curriculum in line with Catholic values. "They've never failed us before."

Mr. Pautler said the group will provide the Ministry of Education with a road map of its updated Family Life sex-ed curriculum, used in Catholic schools for decades, outlining how it covers all the requirements of the general curriculum.

"It is sometimes different by virtue of the language that is used," Mr. Pautler said. "We draw on our faith tradition to explain and to position some of the ideas and some of the concepts that are presented."

He said Family Life puts human development, sexuality and relationships in a broader context that expands students' understanding of their faith.

In August, Catholic school boards will receive communications material to help parents understand how Ontario's new curriculum will be integrated into Family Life. ICE will then distribute documents to help teachers develop lesson plans and deliver the curriculum in classrooms starting in October, and will add more as the organization develops resources.

Mr. Pautler said parents can be reassured because the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario will be among several organizations to review all the material before it is released.

"We're confident that we can work with the curriculum and will develop resources that will assist teachers in delivering it in ways that are meaningful and appropriate," he said.

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