Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty on a school visitParents are the primary educators of their children. While this may seem to be a rather mundane statement, it is becoming radical in many parts of the world. Yet last week parents rose up to tell the politicians, experts and bureaucrats that run Ontario’s education system that they had had enough and a strange thing happened; the parents won the day.

Last January, with little fanfare, the ministry of education released a revised curriculum for all students in grades 1 through 8; the subject area sex education. Now it is important to point out that this is a revised curriculum and that sex education has been a mainstay in the province’s schools for nearly 30 years. The fight over whether to have it or not is long over; the fight now is what to teach.

Ontario is Canada’s largest province by population, a jurisdiction that ranks just below Illinois and Pennsylvania within a North American context. That means that the province runs one of the largest school systems in North America and the decisions of bureaucrats here can have repercussions beyond the Great White North. In fact, one American expert on children’s sex education was simply effusive about Ontario’s plans in an interview with the National Post.

“I thought this is so fantastic that someone is finally setting the stage that, to be comprehensive, sex education cannot start in high school or even middle school – you have to start early because everything is a building block,” said Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, an organization based at Rutgers University providing and promoting comprehensive sexuality education.

Ms. Schroeder says she was excited about the changes, that is, until parents pushed back and forced the premier to stop the curriculum revision, then she was downright disappointed. “Then when I saw they changed their minds, I thought: Oh great, why don’t you just move down here. That’s what we do in the States, kow-tow to parents groups and religious leaders instead of sticking our feet in the ground and saying ‘We are the educational experts.'”

In Schroeder’s world, parents are not the primary educators, they are merely co-consumers along with their children, of whatever “the educational experts” deem fitting. Unlike Schroeder however, politicians need to get elected and having heard that parents were not happy with the new course of study, they considered their election chances and thought better of forging ahead.

In the revised curriculum there were “changes” that were not really changes at all. There was a call for teachers to introduce the proper scientific names for genitalia in the first grade, rather redundant in most schools since kindergarten teachers already start this two years earlier with 4 year-olds, correcting every mention of “my wee-wee” by telling Jack he has a penis and Jill that she has a vagina.

I’ve been dealing with that particular killjoy for years with my own children (and nieces and nephews before them); adults deciding that children must use the words that adults rarely utter themselves, except to correct young Jack and Jill. Really, whether in vulgar conversation or less serious, do any grown men go around talking about their penis outside of the doctor’s office? And with having a wife, a sister, several in-laws and from working in female dominated offices, I don’t need to ask about how often the women folk refer to their own private parts in correct medical terms.

The fight over the new curriculum has more to do with the explicit nature of some of the material aimed at later grades. By the third grade, which in Ontario generally means children aged 7 or 8 years old, teachers would introduce topics such as homosexuality, gender identity and sexual orientation. In grade six, masturbation would share time with grammar and complex math problems, while in grade seven, children would begin to learn about oral and anal sex.

If any of this makes you shake your head in wonder then you are not alone. While much of the commentary in the Canadian media has focussed on Premier Dalton McGuinty caving in to the “religious right” this is only half the story. Just days before the premier announced that “we should give this a serious rethink”, a group of Evangelical Christian groups announced that they planned a mass protest on the lawn of the legislature to denounce the government’s plans as “indoctrination.” These groups are now blamed for the program’s cancellation, but they simply raised the alarm on the issue. They had no power to stop it because, quite simply, the Christian right in Canada is not that strong.

Yes, Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic school system balked at teaching these subjects, but in reality, their unique position in both constitutional and legislative terms means they never had to teach this material, regardless of ministry directives.

In the end though, what stopped the program from going ahead was the reaction of many parents, “You’re going to teach my child what?”

In picking up the phone to call their local representative or a talk radio program, parents let their voices be heard. The government is now promising greater input from parents in the revision of the revised curriculum, “I think we have learned, in this particular case, that parents do want to know when there are changes.”, Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky told reporters after the program was cancelled.

While Dombrowsky now sees the value in allowing parents to have a say, Schroeder remains upset, saying that parents don’t get a say in when certain math topics are introduced, why should they have a say when it comes to sexual education? The answer to that is obvious. Because while we all agree that in math class two plus two is four, we don’t all agree on what one plus one should mean, or do, when it comes to intimacy and sexuality. And when there is doubt, parents, not the so-called experts, should have the final say.

Brian Lilley is a political journalist and the Ottawa Bureau Chief for radio stations Newstalk 1010 Toronto and CJAD 800 Montreal. He is also the Associate Editor of Mercatornet. Follow Brian on Twitter.