“Let’s Talk” is not Doug Ford’s stance on sex education and young people in general
Photos By Mansoor Tanweer/Flickr

“Let’s Talk” is not Doug Ford’s stance on sex education and young people in general

If you live in a bubble, you don’t deal in facts. You create alternative realities.

The bubble allows you to lean on long-held beliefs based on family values, religious teachings, political ideology, or maybe it’s as ephemeral as regurgitating the ideas from the last person you talked to. Or, maybe, in a wiki-educated, Google bubble, regurgitating the latest “facts” from the world of the wide web, has become de rigueur in one’s construction of reality.

In the bubble, you believe people of the same sex shouldn’t marry, or a person’s gayness can be knocked out of them. There are no bisexual or transgender people, and what the heck is sexting, anyway?

In the bubble, children shouldn’t be taught a new curriculum that deals with modern-day issues like sexual orientation and gender identity because in the bubble, it’s 1989, not 2019, and sex talk is embarrassing to you and inappropriate for them. Your children are not mature enough to deal with it.

You don’t believe cyber has changed us, and children don’t live in a hyper-sexed world. There are no dangerous online sexual predators, and a new batch of sexually transmitted diseases are not making the rounds.

But there might be something even more profound at work here. Is this gap between children and past generations one of the reasons for the rising anxiety levels amongst young people, especially girls – a particularly vulnerable sector in society? Does repression or a lack of understanding – flowing from the (mis)information gleaned inside bubbles – lead to mental issues like anxiety, depression and suicidal escape?

Is it easier for parents to base everything on their value system(s) because they can, and because they have the vote, and that means they can put into power the people who represent their views?

Is that what is happening at Queen’s Park?

Is this how some parents keep their children in the bubble, too?

After all, that’s the safest place to be, right? The space outside the frightening reality of our world.

Or is it?

Truth is, the bubble doesn’t exist.

Today’s world isn’t the same one faced by previous generations. The harsh reality of a digitized society that has become a capitalist system’s channel of ever-expanding commerce, preying on anyone who represents an opportunity to extract revenue, changed everything.

Sexual predators, swamped by imagery and messaging on millions of websites, lurk on the internet. Sex shaming is a cyberbullying tool. Sexually explicit pictures or videos can be picked up and distributed instantly to a world hungry for it. Sexting is a modern-day malady that has left even well-known politicos scrambling over the past few years, including MP Tony Clement, once a powerful force in the Conservative party of Canada, and a former Brampton MPP.

The fact a legislator, given authority by the people who put him in power to protect them, was powerless in the hands of technology that helps create desires, then allows them to be fulfilled, is disturbing. A 55-year-old father of three was caught sexting while at the same time sitting in Ottawa, overseeing the laws that govern behaviour, should give us pause, and ring the alarm bells.

Children need tools to recognize danger and respond accordingly.

In 2015, the ruling Liberals, under former premier Kathleen Wynne, introduced a progressive sex-education curriculum to meet head-on with our rapidly evolving new reality.

While some parents were horrified because the syllabus was deemed too graphic, even pornographic, others said it was a much overdue response in the internet age. Social conservatives deemed it government over-reach, and it would most assuredly corrupt our children at a too-young age. The reactionary forces finally found a knight errant in Doug Ford, our premier. He won a majority of seats in 2018 with a minority of votes (40 percent), and since his win, he and his party have tried to dismantle any trace of the Wynne era – including the 2015 sex-ed curriculum.

The PC’s didn’t even bother creating a new one, but simply ordered a switch back to the 1998 model.

Students would no longer learn about online bullying associated with sexting, masturbationgender identity and discussions around same-sex marriages. Teachers were also able to address other dynamics arising from a host of new challenges for students, not faced by previous generations, or in some cases, not to the same extent. 

But there was a complication, and it raised its head recently.

Lawyers defending Ford’s repeal of the evil Wynne ways, said in court that teachers can still use her curriculum as a resource to explain questions of consent, transgender issues and homophobia.

This is not what Ford wanted or intended. He has threatened teachers who revert to the 2015 curriculum. He even installed an Orwellian-like “snitch line” so parents could complain about any teachers who dare teach it, or engage students about deeply complex realities they face, outside the “nothing to see here” bubble created by Ford and his ilk. Educators who respond to the needs of students in ways forbidden by Ford, will be disciplined, said Ontario’s top politician, now acting as God.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario believe Ford and his PC cronies have acted unconstitutionally, putting students at risk, and that the constitution sets down no rules on what cannot be taught about sex, gender identity and sexual predation in class. Their argument also claims same-sex partners and their children have been discriminated against, by the erasing of educational opportunities that illuminate issues directly relevant to their interests and well being.

So why would lawyers, including some representing a group employed by the government, offer an opportunity for teachers to continue the Wynne way?

Many have asked: how will these legal submissions by lawyers play out against a panel of judges who will decide the case?

Social conservatives like Tanya Granic Allen, herself repealed by the PC party, called the court argument a betrayal.

The arguments for and against were loud and heated when the 2015 curriculum was unveiled. They remain so today. The conservative voices want to reclaim parental responsibilities and take control of how much sex is taught to their children, and at what age. It’s linked to keeping their innocence intact. They not only have to protect them from predators, but from educators, too. Teachers are forging a path that makes many of them uncomfortable.

The 2015 curriculum included discussions of homosexuality, puberty and masturbation – all before Grade 6. The talk about sexually transmitted infections and delaying sexual activity would begin in Grade 7. For some, this was a bridge too far. Others argue that what is taking place in the lower grades isn’t a question of morality, but healthcare and public safety.

An Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey released last year, said children are under assault in so many ways, and that has manifested itself in serious mental health concerns – perhaps driven in part by social media stratification. One of its worst manifestations is cyberbullying.

Researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health are monitoring classrooms to determine whether these trends reflect more enduring changes or temporary fluctuations. A survey of students has been done every two years since 1977 and is the longest ongoing look at adolescents in Canada, or the world. More than 11,000 students in Grades 7 through 12 and from 214 schools took part in last year’s study.

The survey indicates younger students – particularly girls – have increased symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In total, 20 percent of students said they’ve spent five or more hours on social media a day – almost double the finding in 2013. One in 20 high school students reported symptoms suggesting they had a serious problem with technology – such as a loss of control and issues with family and friends. “While the survey can’t tell us whether technology use causes mental-health issues, or vice-versa, there is some evidence from other studies that there may be a link,” said Dr. Robert Mann, the survey’s co-lead.

It found physical violence and other anti-social behaviour dropped significantly over the past two decades, and there was an overall drop in traditionally defined bullying. But cyberbullying remained a consistent problem.

No one can blame parents for wanting the best for their children – and to hold on to their innocence for as long as possible. But in this day and age, it is next to impossible to keep the world at arm’s length.

Education tries to centre children in the moment. It is better to know than not to know. Is it easier to learn at least some of the issues facing children from their educators – not in the back alleys, or on the dark web?   

One health care official in Peel told The Pointer that anxiety is a multi-headed monster that has reached “crisis proportions.”

Yes, anxiety is impacting children like never before. Many are caught in that in-between world where they come face-to-face with their peers and all the social media outreach, and then return home to be with their parents who have very different views of the world or are even naïve to the stresses faced by their kids.  

Might the famous umbrella parents who want their children to see and hear no evil only heighten levels of anxiety?

In a place like Brampton where “east vs. west” tensions, “old-world vs. new” exist in many immigrant homes where cultural confusion between newcomer parents and their children illustrate a very common dynamic.

Many parents import with them the cultural views of the places they left behind, sometimes decades ago. For example, parents who left India, and Punjab specifically, in the ‘80s, often raise children born here with the values, attitudes and social expectations that surrounded families half-way around the world 30 years ago. Meanwhile, those kids, just like the ones living in Punjab today, try to navigate the incredibly complex realities that look nothing like the ‘80s. In Brampton, this confusion has the extra layers of struggle young people torn between two cultural points of view have to solve on their own. For many, it can seem impossible.  

In September 2010, Bell Let’s Talk began a new conversation about Canada’s mental health. At that time, most people were not talking about it. But the numbers spoke volumes about the urgent need for action. Millions of Canadians engaged in an open discussion offering new ideas and hope for those who struggle. The numbers grow each year. Let’s Talk Day 2019 is coming up on Wednesday, January 30, and marks the start of a national awareness campaign leading up to the world’s biggest conversation about mental health. Supported by a wide range of media organizations, the campaign is appearing nationwide on television networks, radio, social media and out-of-home advertising, in newspapers and on movie screens.

Anxiety is one of the realities of our modern world. Is it better to let educators explain the complexities of that world so students won’t feel body-shamed by cyberbullies, or not be given information to explain the risks of sexually transmitted diseases?

Some parents are liberal, others conservative, but their children are partially formed, and some in society would like to keep them uninformed.

Harkirat Singh, the Brampton City Councillor for Wards 9 & 10, was a Peel District School board trustee the past four years before moving up to city hall in last October’s municipal election. While on the board, he sat on the program/curriculum committee, and was a regional rep with the Ontario Public School Board Association (OPSBA).

He didn’t know enough about the current court case involving the repeal of Wynne’s sex-ed curriculum to comment on it, but he was eager to chat about the mental health challenges faced by young students. He was one of the youngest trustees on the board, and for that reason, relates to the evils of anxiety. He’s a devotee of social media, and a big user of Instagram, the platform of choice for many students. He thinks parents and teachers have to recognize the anxieties felt by students, and it’s everyone’s job to fix the problem “before it manifests itself later on in life,” he said.

Left untreated, it can lead to neuroses that ruin lives later on, and cost society much more in healthcare costs. Anxiety can lead to depression, doing self-harm, or suicidal urges. Nipping it in the bud is the challenge for parents and educators and the people we elect to office. Our healthcare system and the overall public safety of our communities depend on a proactive approach.

This all comes into sharper focus on Bell's Let's Talk Day.  

It’s clear early fixes to make sure anxiety issues don’t morph into neuroses have profound, long-lasting benefits. The correlation between social media usage and rising anxiety levels is still unclear, but Singh thinks the pressures felt by young students are clearly stated in the last school report. How it impacts young girls is a critical and growing problem.

When a more provocative sex-ed program was revealed in 2015, the question was not so much whether it was educational, or might help children cope in an ever-changing world, but if it was age-appropriate.

The world has passed through many technological advances since the previous (and now current-again) 1998 sex-ed version was introduced. It was released before the universal use of cellphones, the invention of the smartphone, the spawning of social media and its rapid multiplication. No one heard of terms like sexting and cyberbullying back then.

These new technologies and their strategic use has amplified a duality about the same-sex argument that has widened the divide between the progressive and conservative forces. It’s not confined to Ontario.

In the United States and other countries, there is a movement afoot to protest the “creep” of disturbing and graphic sexual education. On April 23rd,  a national “sit-out” will be held in the U.S. by social conservative activists. It’s an alt-right effort to reverse “gender-bending” content.

The U.S. movement might be explained by the country’s religious mix which is partially driven by its high number of evangelicals – four-times the percentages in Canada. Evangelicals are seen as generals in the culture wars, says an article in the Vancouver Sun.

If the PC government at Queen’s Park wants to exchange the new syllabus to the old one, it has a majority in the legislature. But it doesn’t have a majority of opinion, and it’s sending a mixed message through its lawyers in Toronto.

Is the switch from a new sex-ed program to the old one, or a combination of the two, right or reasonable – and will it have long-lasting and negative effects?

The real world (outside the bubble) is saturated with sex talk on social media and everywhere else. The pressure that puts on school-age children is cause for concern.

Being an adolescent isn’t easy in any era; the formative, developmental school years are always fraught with worries: How do I look? Am I liked? What will my teacher or parents think? Will I succeed? Will I be okay?

Our educational system tries making the transition from one school year to the next as easy and exciting as possible. The hope is that our children will feel engaged and good about themselves and eager to learn. While Ford challenges the ability of educators to help achieve this in the classroom, his cuts to spending and desire to make further changes to the delivery of social supports pose more problems. Conservatives are deploying a two-pronged attack: removal of constructive, vital educational instruction; and the supports that become even more crucial when dire problems spread.  

The child and youth mental health sector in Peel region is badly underfunded. One health official says the region needs “triple or quadruple” the money to provide basic mental health care needs. By not responding to the anxiety levels in school-age children, we pretty much guarantee they will continue to have problems that will fester and grow more acute.

School-aged children are vulnerable to online predators, other generations were not. The digitized world has widened the divide between those who accept a progressive curriculum and those who don’t.

Ford lives in the past. Perhaps allegations about his own behaviour, including drug-dealing, if true (he has never taken legal action against them) point to his lack of concern for young people who can be put in harm’s way by those who prey upon their vulnerability, as they experiment and question and listen and rebel and fail and succeed while trying to make sense of the world – the real world. Ford wants to impose his world on them.

History has a way of condensing time. It also provides a guide. It passes along one clear dictate: a 2019 problem will never get solved by imposing a 1998 solution.

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