Banning experts? Parent vetoes? Welcome to the Sask. sex ed lockdown

Education | Gregory Beatty

Mere days before schools were to open for 2023–2024, the Saskatchewan Party government dropped two major policy changes on them. One undermined the privacy rights of students who change their names and pronouns [see What Just Happened], while the other restricts how schools teach sex education.

The latter was sparked by a May incident at a Planned Parenthood Regina presentation to a grade nine Lumsden class when a student inadvertently found a pamphlet in a box of material PPR had brought that was intended for more mature 2SLGBT+ youth, and told their parents.

 The pamphlet wasn’t part of the presentation, and PPR promptly apologized. But the government moved quickly to ban PPR from classrooms for the rest of the year.

The new policy bars all third parties — including Planned Parenthood — from any involvement in student sex education while the government reviews all the materials with specific focus on those that promote an inclusive understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The government also gave parents the right to opt their children out of the Human Sexuality unit — which is taught in grade six and nine.

Both moves were widely denounced. Critics pointed to Saskatchewan’s nation-leading rates of teen pregnancy, sexual and domestic violence, syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV. By further restricting students’ access to honest and forthright sex education, critics argued, the government was putting their health and safety in jeopardy.

PPR & Policy

Planned Parenthood Regina was founded in 1986. From the start, it had an education component, says executive director Julian Wotherspoon.

“When I was a teen there was a street team and peer programming. The most recent development was the Take Care Down There program in 2017, which is focused on engagement with youth in a variety of settings,” says Wotherspoon.

“We work closely with the people who know the youth best to figure out where they are at. If we’re working with street-involved youth who have been participating in survival sex work, they obviously have a different baseline knowledge than if we’re going into a grade nine classroom in White City,” she says.

When PPR does do a class presentation, it’s always at the invitation of the teacher or school administrator, says Wotherspoon.

“They would reach out and say they’d like to cover a particular topic, could we come in and do that?” she says.

“We cover the basic ‘birds and the bees’, then we have other material that looks at things like consent, gender and sexuality, media literacy and violence prevention. These are things we should be talking about from a young age, as far as I’m concerned. And there are different ways to present it,” she says.

Statistics strongly suggest there’s a need for more sexual health education here. In 2021, Saskatchewan led all provinces with four per cent of live births being to mothers 15 to 19. That translates into about 570 teen moms, and Saskatchewan was one of only two provinces to record births to mothers under 15.

Statistics for Sexually Transmitted Infections from 2018 are similarly striking, with Saskatchewan again leading the provincial pack with 552.7 cases per 100,000 people (compared to 402 in Alberta, and 337 in Quebec).

“The prevention isn’t there and the response isn’t there. That’s why we’re seeing skyrocketing rates,” says Wotherspoon. “Obviously, for individuals, it impacts how you grow up. There can be lifelong impacts, and the fact we are potentially leaving youth exposed to that is really concerning.”

Sky-high rates of teen pregnancy and STIs don’t do Saskatchewan’s bottom-line any favours either, especially with downstream healthcare and social service expenditures.

“Black Hole”

When Cheryl Camillio looks at Saskatchewan’s current Wellness curriculum, the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy analyst says it seems thorough. “But it also seems like it’s a bit of black hole as to what actually happens on the ground — which might be intentional, because it’s such a hot button issue.”

Rather than restrict sex education to single units in grade six and nine, Camillo thinks students would benefit from a more holistic approach.

“The education I’m talking about, it’s not this one salacious unit that students get to giggle about at lunchtime. If sex ed is siloed like that, I think it tends to be treated like that instead of allowing students to develop a skill set over time like we develop our math skills where we move from arithmetic in elementary school to algebra, geometry and trigonometry,” she says.

Starting at a preschool age, Saskatchewan children should be taught how to safeguard themselves from sexual abuse of the type that allegedly occurred at Legacy Christian Academy in Saskatoon, where children as young as five were (allegedly) coerced into sexual touching and performing oral sex on school and church officials. [see sidebar]

“It’s been proven that when you start teaching kids about their anatomy and biology at a young age, and giving them the proper words and terminology, it helps protect them from sexual violence because perpetrators are less likely to target children who understand their anatomy,” says Alejandra Cabrera, who works as an educator at PPR.

As children mature and hit puberty, issues of dating and relationships inevitably emerge, with the associated challenges of birth control, consent and violence, pregnancy and STIs.

“When you take the stigma and shame away from sex and sexual health, it makes it easier for youth to reach out when they need help, or they are not sure if something that’s happening is okay. The internalized shame is less of a barrier,” says Wotherspoon.

That’s a tactic that sexual predators often employee, such as in the Amanda Todd case, where threats of disclosure and the shame it would bring drove the 15-year-old girl to suicide.

When we think about sex education as part of the school curriculum, says Camillo, we should be focused on how to best prepare children and youth for adulthood.

“That includes taking into account their curiosity and addressing questions about what they will face in the world. What I’m seeing in the government’s response to Planned Parenthood, as well as its active support for Legacy Christian, is the desire to control children and treat them as parents’ property instead of to support their growth into adults who will be citizens in our community,” says Camillo.

It’s impossible not to view the Sask. Party’s actions in the broader context of the right-wing attack on reproductive rights and sexual freedom that is playing out most viciously in Christian conservative America but is very much present in Canada, too.

“I think there is a big pushback against some content that is in the curriculum, or library materials, and the age at which youth are able to access this information,” says Wotherspoon.

“I can identify with parents on that,” says Wotherspoon. “You’re worried about your children, you want them to be babies forever. I would love for my children to be babies forever, and I tell them that constantly. But we need to be really honest with the lives they are living, and the age when things start coming up in their social media feeds, or get shown to them by other kids on the playground.

“We are in a place now where, with the Internet, youth have more access to information than ever before. But often they lack the tools to navigate that space in a safe way,” says Wotherspoon.

“It’s vital to get that information to kids. It could be lifesaving for them.” ■


Double Standard

While the Sask. Party government moved at light speed to ban Planned Parenthood Regina from classrooms after an innocent mistake, it’s been positively glacial in its response to the growing Legacy Christian Academy scandal.

In August 2022, 18 former students stepped forward to allege decades of physical, psychological and sexual abuse at Legacy Christian — a K-12 independent school affiliated with Saskatoon’s Mile Two Church.

The students subsequently launched a $25 million lawsuit and, with a police investigation underway, called on the government to stop funding Legacy Christian (and two other Christian schools named in allegations) until the investigation was complete.

Instead, the government appointed special administrators to oversee the schools. In March, the administrators submitted a report, which the government initially refused to release. In June, following an NDP Freedom of Information request, a heavily redacted version was released.

In recent months, police have charged four school officials with criminal offenses tied to the allegations, where students (now numbering in the dozens) described being beaten with wooden paddles until they were left bruised and limping, multiple acts of sexual abuse against teenage girls and young children, relentless harassment and demonizing of 2SLGBT+ youth, and more.

Throughout, the government has been steadfast in its support of Legacy Christian and other religious schools. Not surprising, since it was the Sask. Party that started funding them as Qualified Independent Schools in 2012, and in March 2022 increased their per-student funding from 50 to 75 per cent of the public-school average.

The government defends its flaccid response to the scandal by pointing to a few administrative tweaks it made to school operations. But critics point to a June 29 report by Saskatchewan ombudsman Sharon Pratchler —she said the government needed to improve oversight of the schools through measures such as requiring clear separation from affiliated churches and establishing an independent complaint process — and say much more needs to be done.

“It’s pretty easy to change regulations. But the change they should’ve made is that these religion-based schools can no longer function,” says Ailsa Watkinson, a professor emeritus in Social Work at University of Regina who has been following the case from her Saskatoon home.

“We’ve seen clearly that the schools are not working,” she says. “They’re promoting agendas that are anti-human rights. The government could have changed the regulations to make it clear, for example, that the schools have to abide by human rights legislation.

“They didn’t do that. They are just fiddling, and not getting to the crux of the problem.”

Legacy Christian received $1.5 million in public money from 2020–2022, and since it first started receiving funding in 2012, it (and its sponsor church Two Mile) have built up a “significant surplus”.

Legacy Christian teaches the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum which school/church founder Keith Johnson brought from Texas when he moved to Saskatoon in 1982.

Students spend most of the day studying alone at carols with little interaction with fellow students. Teachers weren’t always accredited. Perhaps worse, ACE has been criticized for its religious messaging which, among other things, promotes creationism and dismisses the science of evolution and climate change, supports the submissiveness of women to men, and generally teaches students to distrust and fear the outside world.

A report by Saskatchewan’s Advocate for Children & Youth, Lisa Broda, is still to come, and Watkinson expects more criminal charges will be laid.

At a time when the public school system is begging the Sask. Party government for money to cope with record enrollment, more students with complex needs and inflationary pressure, she finds it bizarre that the government is paying special administrators to babysit the discredited schools.

“These schools are fundamentally evangelical,” says Watkinson. “They take literal interpretations of the Bible as needed and seem to think that will get them to Heaven.

“The idea that they are eligible to be funded as a form of public education when we are looking to promote good citizenship, democracy, equity and human rights is bizarre,” she says. ■