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MONTREAL—When Josee Anctil received a phone call in the spring of 2003 from a distraught councilor of a youth home in Sherbrooke, she knew something had to be done about the state of sex education in Quebec. Five young teenagers, three boys and two girls, had knocked on the door of the youth home confused, anxious and troubled. They had been home alone the night before doing research on the internet, and had stumbled upon a pornography website. They decided to recreate what they were seeing, and at the age of 14, they had their first sexual experience as a group, and were having a difficult time processing what had happened.
“We were abandoning our children in a jungle of misinformation,” says Anctil, “I was shaken, and made it my personal and professional goal to do something about it.”
On December 8, 2010, Quebec Education Minister Line Beauchamp announced that new reforms would reintroduce sex education into primary and secondary schools in the province. This announcement came after years of grassroots efforts to fill the sex education gap in the school system, including a petition signed by 7,000 people, demanding the reinstatement of sex education.
“Even sex educators no longer know how to deal with dilemmas faced by children and teenagers—the easier it is to access the internet and porn sites, the more complex the issue of sex education becomes,” said Anctil before Quebec’s National Assembly on November 29, 2011. Anctil and Marjorie Roireau, both members of CALACS in Estrie, a non-profit organization that provides support for victims of sexual assault, had initiated a petition to shed light on the shortcomings of sex education in the province, and calling on the provincial government to reinstate sex education in primary and secondary schools.
A 2001 education reform in Quebec prioritized core subjects such as math, history and literature at the expense of courses such as Personal and Social Development that incorporated sex education. When the reform was finalized in 2005, Quebec became the only province in Canada without mandatory sex education in public schools. The government’s objective was to take a multi-disciplinary and transversal approach to sex education by encouraging teachers of every subject to talk about sex.
According to Francine Duquet, a professor at UQAM who oversaw the government handbook for teachers to address sexuality in their classes, “the formula is different. We want everyone, from the supervisor to the math teacher, to be able to intervene if they hear a sexual joke for example.”
Opposition groups were quick to point out the new program’s shortcomings. There was no method of evaluating whether or not students were receiving adequate sexual education, and often teachers were neither qualified nor comfortable talking about sex with their students. Jerome Ramcharitar, a student at Montreal’s Westmount High School, said that since the reforms were implemented, his teachers have never addressed sex. “I had [sex ed] in grade seven and eight, but then I didn’t have it at all,” Ramcharitar said.
A variety of groups that focus on preventing sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases and promoting gender equality stepped in to fill the vacuum. AIDS Community Care Montreal designed a toolkit for teachers to incorporate sexuality into their curriculum. According to Anthony Buccitelli, Co-ordinator of Education and Prevention at ACCM, “Quebec has the highest increase in STIs and STDs of any other provinces and the lowest condom use when it comes to youth, so it’s really important for kids to be equipped with tools and knowledge to make informed decisions.”
Head and Hands, an organization that provides medical, legal and social services to Montreal young people, took a different approach with the Sense project, a peer-based sex education program that facilitates workshops on sexual consent and debunking myths related to sexuality in high schools. “We have a good reputation and an empowering model,” says Juniper Belshaw, who oversees fundraising and development at Head and Hands. “We’re happy to do the job, but it’s hard to keep it up when everyone is scrambling to keep it together.” She adds that public health work should primarily be the government’s responsibility.
Despite their work, the situation remains problematic. Provincial STI and STD rates have steadily increased since 2005, and 15-to-25-year-olds are the most vulnerable group. “Children and teenagers will always have questions related to sex, whether or not we provide them with sex education classes,” says Marjorie Roireau. “In an increasingly hypersexual culture, children and teenagers lacking resources at school or at home turn to pornography and the internet for information.”
For CALACS, the most effective way to fight the hypersexualization of society was by developing an awareness and critical spirit among young people, as early as possible. “We’re not trying to moralize teenagers or tell them what to think, we want to sensitize them to issues surrounding sexuality,” clarifies Josee Anctil. CALACS's holistic approach to sex education went beyond concerns about STI and STD rates. “It’s about respecting equality between men and women, fighting homophobia, and providing an alternative to our hypersexual culture,” says Roireau. “We knew we couldn’t sit around and dwell on the issue anymore, it was time to knock on the door of decision-makers.”
The 2010 World March for Women on October 17, 2010, in Rimouski presented a timely opportunity for CALACS to voice its concerns. Two petitions were circulated demanding the reintroduction of sex education classes. “It’s a very formal process,” says Yenisse Albarez, Director of CALACS in Estrie. “Although the government was receptive, it still has to figure out how to go about the matter.”
According to Esther Chouinard, Director of Communications at the Education Ministry, a diverse group of education experts, sexologists and government officials is working on the new program. The group has to decide what will be taught and how. She confirms that sex education classes will be reintegrated into primary and secondary schools, “but we’re not sure whether it will be in September 2011 or 2012, in the form of a class of its own or integrated into the existing classes.”
Although Quebec groups celebrate the fact that the government is taking a step in the right direction, concerns remain. “We don’t know exactly what they’re doing, we’re still left in the shadow,” says Anthony Buccitelli. “There are rumors they might consult us and use some of our information, but we have no official news on whether or not they want to collaborate.”
“All we can do is continue to sensitize the population and develop their critical spirit,” says Roireau, who hopes a more aware population will hold the government accountable when the new program is announced.
“When sex education was in schools there were shortcomings, so the fact that it might be back may not be sufficient,” says Juniper Belshaw. “We need to ask ourselves how sex education can be super-empowering and productive.”
Charly Feldman is a journalist and videographer with a background in political science and international development studies. Born in Montreal, she spent 14 years in Vietnam. For the past four years she has enjoyed getting reacquainted with and writing about her city of birth and its intricate policies.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.