A Century Long Debate over Sexual Education in Ontario

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Michelle Hutchinson Grondin, PhD


On February 23, 2015, Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals announced revisions to provincial sexual education program, which includes teachers explaining “gender expression” in grade five, masturbation in grade six, the hazards of sexting in grade seven, and same-sex relationships in grade eight. [1] Even though the Ontario curriculum had not been updated since 1998, the Liberal government met intense opposition to the proposed modifications. Premier Kathleen Wynne was criticized by MPP Monte McNaughton of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario who argued that “It’s not the premier of Ontario’s job, especially Kathleen Wynne, to tell parents what’s age appropriate for their children.”[2] While tensions flared at Queen’s Park, protestors clamored outside the legislature. Participants included members of the Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion group, and the Roman Catholic group Parents as First Educators. Despite these protests, the curriculum was implemented in the fall of 2015. The decision to move ahead with the new curriculum can be contrasted with the Dalton McGuinty government’s revised sexual instruction guidelines in 2010, when vocal religious conservative minorities successfully prevented the Liberals from up-dating the sexual education program.[3]

While the press reported rather exclusively on both the 2015 and 2010 controversies, little was said on the history of sexual education in Ontario schools. This absence was blatantly clear when Thames Valley District School Board superintendent Don MacPherson observed that, “there will always be an element of parents that won’t be happy. But we’ve been teaching sexuality in Ontario’s schools for 50 years.”[4] MacPherson, however, was mistaken, because the subject has actually been taught in Ontario schools since at least 1905, when missionary and English professor Arthur Beall travelled to schools and taught boys that masturbation drained their “life fluid,” and the importance of Christian values and morality.[5] From 1925 to 1933, the Ontario Health Department employed Agnes Haygarth, a social service nurse, to travel across rural Ontario and give lectures on health to public school children. She showed students films on health, and mainly taught girls, unless there were no male health officers available to talk to the boys.[6]

Similar to the First World War, during the Second World War STI rates rose, the absence of husbands and fathers in the home increased, and the perceived breakdown of the nuclear family put sexual instruction at the forefront of schools’ agendas. As a consequence of losing a large proportion of the young male population on the battlefield, Canadians wanted to ensure the physical and mental health of the coming generation.[7] In the post-war era, family structures were changing as single-parent households were more visible, and many families relied on the income of two parents. Illegitimate birth rates amplified the need for sexual instruction in schools, and a few Canadian school boards offered information on birth control as a result.[8] Calls for formal sexual education came from parents, family planning groups, the medical community, and even youth. A 1944 Gallup poll illustrated that over ninety percent of Canadians believed that STI education belonged in schools.[9] Therefore, support for sexual instruction increased as fears over STIs intensified.[10] In the 1950s, the focus of sexual education changed from hygiene and STIs to family education/family studies. The introduction of penicillin, coupled with the end of the war, lessened the threat of STIs, but was quickly replaced by fears over juvenile delinquency and the so-called sexual revolution.

The counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and its perceived threat to the family, traditional gender roles, and sexual norms created some of the same disagreements that are currently playing out around the 2015 curriculum. In 2015, and during the 1960s and 1970s, social crises, such as rising STIs and teen pregnancy rates, placed pressure on government agencies, school boards, and educators to incorporate sexual education. The goals of the intended curriculums were to preserve the family and protect youth. However, minority groups, which usually had religious affiliations, protested the implementation of updated curriculums. As a result, the Ministry of Education avoided mandatory sexual health programs until 1987, as a result of the AIDS crisis. In 1966, the Ministry recommended including sexual health topics in the 1967-68 physical and health education curriculum, but individual school board administrators decided whether sexual instruction would be taught in the classroom.[11] During the 1960s and 1970s, more schools created their own sexual education guidelines and classes in response to altering gender norms promoted by the feminist and gay rights movements, and increasing adolescent pregnancy and STI rates, but the majority avoided this subject. By 1979, only thirty-nine boards (a sixth of Ontario’s boards) taught birth control in any grade, and forty-eight gave family planning instruction.[12]

Prior to the1980s, the main types of STIs were syphilis and gonorrhea. While they could cause mental illness if left untreated, they were fairly easy to cure with penicillin. Furthermore, the effects of these diseases were minimal when cured in the early stages of infection. The appearance of herpes, which has no cure, caused greater alarm amongst the Canadian public in the mid to late seventies.[13] By the early eighties, however, herpes was quickly overshadowed by the emergence of AIDS.[14] While herpes was highly contagious and uncomfortable, due to open sores that appear around the genitals, it, unlike AIDS, is not fatal. Due to a lack of reporting, it was challenging for medical professionals to know exactly how many people were infected at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, but by 1984, it was estimated that seventy men and nine women had died of AIDS in Canada, while seventy-one men and two women were still living with the disease. In the United States, the statistics were even more staggering with the diagnosis of 6,720 men and 461 women, 3,449 of whom were deceased. However, it was possible that many more people were infected and had yet to show symptoms.[15] In 1985, there were 381 AIDS cases in Canada, and the disease was mainly associated with homosexuality.[16]

In the 1980s, AIDS was a death sentence, but was scapegoated, along with other STIs, as a consequence of the sexual revolution and loose sexual morality. Dr. W. Gifford Jones, the pseudonym of a Toronto physician who wrote columns on medical issues for The Globe and Mail, claimed that herpes “started with the sexual revolution of the Sixties, and proves that free-wheeling sex in the Eighties carries with it overwhelming liabilities.”[17] Similar to the previous two decades and throughout the twentieth century as a whole, concerns over the consequences of sexual behaviour, whether it be STIs, adolescent pregnancy, or a breakdown of sexual morality, led to calls for education to curb these social ills. Londoner and environmentalist David Suzuki claimed that “With education about the disease and the use of sensible hygienic practices, the spread of AIDS could be significantly slowed.”[18]

Education Minister Sean Conway told the press in January, 1987, that all Ontario school boards were expected to teach AIDS education, but “it will be up to local boards to determine how they want to teach it, and up to individual parents to decide if they want their children to participate.”[19] Special Assistant to the Minister Susa Hanna stipulated that all students, regardless of whether they were in the public or separate school system, should receive AIDS instruction between grades seven and thirteen in their health classes.[20] Again, the Minister’s actions were criticized by religious leaders such as Rev. Jack Gallagher, a representative of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, who stated that while he agreed with AIDS education, he objected to a Ministry-mandated program, because “If you just tell the students how not to get AIDS, it looks like you’re presuming they’re going to go ahead and engage in sexual activities.”[21] The belief that sexual instruction could lead to sexual experimentation persisted throughout the twentieth century. According to Dr. Gifford Jones, many churchmen of different faiths found the promotion of safe sex problematic and claimed the solution to stopping AIDS was a return to ‘old fashioned’ sexual morality and confining sex to marriage.[22] As has been seen in the sixties and seventies, religious groups continued to be at the forefront of opposition to improvements in sexual education. Meanwhile, many members of the medical community fully supported the program, and the Minister of Health for Toronto, Dr. Alexander Macpherson, claimed that public health workers were ready to support teachers with resources for AIDS instruction.[23] Furthermore, he advocated for a straightforward approach that used explicit language and promoted the use of condoms as well as abstinence.[24]

By the winter of 1987, Suzuki expressed his disappointment that the federal government had failed to implement an AIDS education program. In the spring of that year, the Canadian government had announced plans to launch such an endeavour, but by December, nothing had been accomplished.   Suzuki was incensed: “In spite of constant press reports and attention documenting the alarming rate of spread of the disease, the Government has dragged its heels.”[25] By 1987, it was more widely acknowledged that heterosexuals were also at risk, which explains why the Canadian federal government finally decided to implement public education across the country, even though health and education fall under provincial jurisdiction.[26]

Presently, the controversy and subsequent dispute over the updated sexual education curriculum revolves around death, but not the victims of the AIDS epidemic. Rather, the deaths of teenagers committing suicide as a result of bullying are at the center of the sexual instruction debate. In 2004, it was reported by the Canadian Children’s Right Council that 294 youths commit suicide a year.[27] It is also the second most common cause of death for Canadian youth between the ages of ten and twenty-four, with LGBTQ and Indigenous teenagers being at an even higher risk.[28] In addition, the death of fifteen-year-old Nova Scotian Rehteah Parsons in 2013 emphasized the need for updates to the public school curriculum, not only in Nova Scotia, but in Ontario as well. Parsons was 15 when she was allegedly raped by four adolescent boys. A bystander took photos and uploaded them to social media. As a result, Parsons was harassed and bullied by her peers, which prompted her to take her own life. Furthermore, the boys involved were unaware that they could be charged for their actions.[29] The Toronto Star reporters Marco Chown Oved and Laura Kane argued that rape culture “starts in schools, where an outdated sex-education curriculum doesn’t address consent, new technology or sexual assault.”[30] Prior to 2015, the Ontario physical and health education curriculum did not include any discussion on consent, sexual assault, or social media abuse. In addition, little emphasis was placed on interpersonal violence, such as rape. According to the reporters, cyberbullying “has a worse effect on victims than traditional bullying because if the impression that ‘everyone knows’ about shared photos or abuse.”[31] The presence of social media is increasing and changes the transmission of harassment and bullying, but the 1998 curriculum did not include any education on how students could protect themselves or methods of using this new media without harming others.

Toronto sexuality educator Nadine Thornhill commented that, as a result of the allegations against entertainer Bill Cosby and former CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, “We’re having these stories surface again and again and again of people not respecting consent, of people not honouring sexual boundaries.”[32] According to Thornhill, sexual education can provide students with information that will help them make responsible sexual decisions. The purpose of sexual instruction is not to bombard students with sexual information, but provide guidance and knowledge to prevent non-consensual sexual activities. Both supporters of sex education, such as Thornhill, and its detractors, such as Parents as First Educators want to protect and guide youth, but they have different ideas on how to meet these goals. These recent events indicate that over the course of the twentieth century, little has changed in the battle over sexual education in this province. Attempts to create updated sexual instruction guidelines are motivated by social scares from STIs to suicide. At the same time, changes are met with resistance by vocal minorities who usually have religious affiliations. Regardless of what side of the debate these groups are on, their goals are similar: protect youth. Sexual education has been present in public schools for a century and its primary failing relates to the inability of educators and politicians to ensure that all students receive sexual education and that regular updates are provided.


Michelle Hutchinson Grondin, is a part-time professor of writing at King’s University College, as well as a recent graduate from the Ph.D. program in History at the University of Western Ontario. Her dissertation, entitled, “More than Plumbing: The History of Sexual Education in Ontario, 1960-1979,” focused on the historical evolution of sexual education and curriculum within the public school program of Ontario.


[1] Ontario Ministry of Education, Health and Physical Education: The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8 (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education, 2015), 94, 195, 216.

[2] Adrian Wyld, “Kathleen Wynne Defends Revised Sex Ed Curriculum: Outside Queen’s Park, a Few Hundred People Protested the Sex-Ed Curriculum,” Maclean’s Online, February 24, 2015, http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/kathleen-wynne-defends-revised-sex-ed-curriculum. Wynne countered with the statement “What is it that especially disqualifies me for the job that I’m doing? Is it that I’m a woman? Is it that I’m a mother? Is it that I have a master’s of education? Is it that I was a school council chair? Is it that I was the minister of education?” See Adrian Morrow, “Wynne Suggests Tory MPP Homophobic After Sex-Ed Comments,” The Globe and Mail, February 24, 2015.

[3] Robert Benzie, “Analysis: Dalton McGuinty’s Sex-Ed Surrender Motivated by Politics,” The Toronto Star, April 23, 2010.

[4] Antonella Artuso, “The Curriculum Has Upset Some but Will Make Ontario a Leader in the Field,” The London Free Press, February 23, 2015.

[5] Michael Bliss, “’Pure Books on Avoided Subjects’: Pre-Freudian Sexual Ideas in Canada,” Historical Papers (Canadian Historical Association) 5, no.1 (1970): 107.

[6] Jay Cassel, The Secret Plague: Venereal Disease in Canada, 1838-1939 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1987), 232. Cassel does not specify exactly what Haygarth taught.

[7] Cynthia Comacchio, Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of a Modern Canada (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006), 94.

[8] George S. Tomkins, A Common Countenance: Stability and Change in the Canadian Curriculum (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1986), 266-7.

[9] Deanna Behnke-Cook, “Making Claims About Sex Education in Middle School” (PhD diss., McMaster University, 2004), 65-66.

[10] Christabelle Sethna, “The Facts of Life: The Sex Instruction of Ontario Public School Children, 1900-1950,” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1995), 108.

[11] “Building Slowdown is Hinted by Davis,” The Globe and Mail, December 3, 1966.

[12] Jessop Orton, Maureen Rosenblatt, and Ellen Rosenblatt, Adolescent Birth Planning Needs: Ontario in the Eighties (Hamilton: Planned Parenthood Ontario, 1981), 64.

[13] “3 Diseases Increasing Health Report Warns,” The Globe and Mail, September 6, 1975.

[14] Caitlin Kelly, “Herpes Brings Anguish to Thousands of Unwary,” The Globe and Mail, December 31, 1985.

[15] Martin Stuart-Harle, “Evidence is Increasing on Spread of AIDS Through Conventional Sex,” The Globe and Mail, November 28, 1985.

[16] John Fitzgerald, “AIDS’ Other Victims,” The Globe and Mail, December 12, 1987.

[17] W. Gifford-Jones, “The Doctor Game: Why Has Herpes Virus Gone on the Rampage?” The Globe and Mail, October 30, 1980.

[18] David Suzuki, “AIDS Threat is Here, Federal Program Isn’t,” The Globe and Mail, December 12, 1987.

[19] Henry Hess, “Minister Promises Local Control of Required Instruction on AIDS,” The Globe and Mail, January 28, 1987.

[20] Hess.

[21] Hess.

[22] W. Gifford-Jones, “The Doctor Game: Wise Monkey Spreads No Evil in a World Where AIDS Lurks,” The Globe and Mail, June 3, 1987.

[23] Hess.

[24] Taylor.

[25] Suzuki.

[26] W. Gifford-Jones, “The Doctor Game: Wise Monkey Spreads No Evil in a World Where AIDS Lurks.”

[27] Jeanette A. Auger and Kate Krug, Inside the Rainbow: A Primer on Queer Issues in Canada (Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2013), 197.

[28] Auger and Krug, 197.

[29] Barbara Kay, “Barbara Kay: Going All the Way on Sex Education,” National Post, January 30, 2015.

[30] Marco Chown Oved and Laura Kane, “Rape Culture: What do Steubenville, Rehtaeh Parsons and Frosh Chants Have in Common,” The Toronto Star, October 19, 2013.

[31] Oved and Kane.

[32] Sarah Boesveld, “Ontario’s New Sex Ed Covers Homosexuality, Masturbation – and Consent. Not Everyone’s Saying ‘Yes,’” National Post, February 20, 2015.

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2 thoughts on “A Century Long Debate over Sexual Education in Ontario

  1. Andy Hanson

    It’s interesting that in June 1968, the Committee to Study the Problems of Young Married Women Teachers of the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario pointed out how “ludicrous” it was “to talk on the one had of sex education in the schools and on the other hand to banish teachers as soon as pregnancy is apparent.” Looking at sex education through a disease prevention lens rather than a conception prevention lens makes sense of that.

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