POLITICS
09/04/2018 13:12 EDT | Updated 09/04/2018 16:07 EDT

Ontario Teachers’ Union Launches Legal Fight Over Sex Ed, Snitch Site

The PC government is infringing on charter rights, the ETFO will argue.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario is taking Premier Doug Ford's government to court over its repeal of an updated health curriculum and new snitch site for parents.

"The Ford government has thrown the system into uncertainty with poorly thought out announcements and confusing communications," union president Sam Hammond said at a press conference Tuesday.

"The actions of the government to rescind the 2015 curriculum undermines the very safety and wellbeing of Ontario students and families. The world our students live in today is very different than it was in 1998."

The ETFO's legal application, filed at Ontario Superior Court, argues that the government is violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Forcing teachers to use health and sex ed material first introduced in 1998 infringes on their right to freedom of expression, as well as students' rights to security and equality, the application states.

The world our students live in today is very different than it was in 1998.Sam Hammond

The so-called "snitch line," or website for parents to lodge complaints about teachers, was meant to "intimidate" teachers and stop them from teaching material in the 2015 curriculum, the union will argue in court.

2015's updated curriculum included information about consent, gender identity, same-sex relationships, cyberbullying and sexting.

"Women, girls, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are at a greater risk of physical, psychological and sexual violence, and the removal of key information designed to both promote personal safety as well as acceptance of sexual and gender minorities compounds the harm to members of these groups," the application states.

Hammond said he is worried that teachers could be reported to the government's site if they even mention gay relationships. If a child in class says, "I don't have a mom and a dad, I have two moms," and the teacher uses that as a teachable moment, it's not clear if they could be disciplined for straying from the curriculum.

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Minister of Education Lisa Thompson hasn't had any contact with the ETFO other than a brief introductory phone call, Hammond told reporters. Normally, governments have given teachers' groups a heads up when they make an announcement on education, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry told HuffPost Canada that the complaints site fulfills a campaign promise to give parents a voice.

"Our Government for the People is currently undergoing unprecedented parental consultation when it comes to school curriculum – including financial literacy, improving math scores, and developing an age-appropriate Health and Physical Education Curriculum – and we invite everyone to get involved," Ingrid Anderson said in an email. "As this matter is before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment further."

As the school year starts, Burlington teacher Paul Brandreth is hoping parents will ignore the site, he told HuffPost Canada in an interview.

"If a parent has concerns, there is a chain of command," the Grade 5 teacher said.

"If they've got a problem, they can come to me. If they don't like the answer, they can go to the principal. If they don't like that, they can go to the superintendent. And so on and so forth," he said.

"As a teacher, you don't like to hear about a conversation between a parent and a principal ... It's not because you're worried about getting in trouble, but you want to have that open communication with the parent, so you can solve those problems cooperatively."

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The Ontario College of Teachers, which is tasked with investigating complaints from the site, will continue to encourage parents to go to teachers first.

"Most issues can and should be resolved at the local level," spokesman Brian Jamieson told HuffPost Canada in an email. "We are working with the government to determine how the announced process can align with our well-established, existing system of resolving parents' concerns."

Jamieson declined to say whether or not the government gave the college a heads up about its new website.

Hammond and his 83,000 members will have to wait and see how the court rules. If they win, the government will be ordered to reinstate the 2015 curriculum and shut down its complaint site.

In the meantime, Hammond said he's directed teachers to "to use their professional judgment, as they always have," while teaching health and sexual education. He doesn't expect teachers to purposefully defy the government, but said they will work to make sure students have the knowledge they need to navigate the world in 2018.

This story has been updated with comment from the provincial government.