Any talk of the human body remains highly sensitive within the observant Muslim community.
In response to the uproar at Thorncliffe Park, principal Crane staged a series of information sessions for parents. Most are placated when they learn the innocuous truth about the sex-ed program, he says. Even so, any talk of the human body remains highly sensitive within the observant Muslim community, and Thorncliffe has long accommodated those who object to it on religious grounds.
In typical schools, boys and girls are divided into separate classes before they are taught their first lessons about puberty in Grade 5 (under the new curriculum, puberty lessons will now begin in Grade 4). At Thorncliffe and other heavily immigrant schools in Toronto, a third group of exempted students is sent off to a separate classroom to learn about puberty in a lesson that does not mention the basic matter of sexual development but focuses instead on hygiene.
“Religious accommodation” is standard policy in such schools, which will continue to offer toned-down lessons to the children of parents who do not want them to attend the new “healthy sexuality” classes. But decisions get tougher when actual values are at stake. This is where multiculturalism meets its hard limit.
If you phone the Peel District School Board in suburban Toronto, the first thing you learn from the recorded voice is that Peel schools are “where values are taught daily.” In the business of moulding young Canadians, the traditional “three Rs” nowadays make room for outright indoctrination in advanced democratic principles. And as Peel director of education Tony Pontes made clear when he addressed the sex-ed protests both in a letter to parents and a speech last fall, there can be no exemptions.
“We cannot — we will not — by action or inaction endorse discrimination,” Pontes said in his speech. “Supported by legal opinion, bolstered by our core values, I would no more say yes to someone wanting a child excluded because of a discussion about LGBTQ than I would a discussion about race or gender.”
For Pontes, the Ontario Human Rights Code etches a bright line between reasonable and excessive accommodation. “If we are to build an inclusive school system, which is our mandate, then we cannot provide an accommodation for any requests to exempt a student from a part of the curriculum that touches on protected grounds under the Ontario Human Rights Code,” he says in an interview.
The code prohibits discrimination based on a number of grounds, including gender identity and sexual orientation. So when Grade 3 students learn about some of the differences among people — including the fact that some are gay — Peel schools will not arrange for them to learn about washing their hands instead.
“That’s where we draw the line,” Pontes says. “We always respect that a parent can make the right decisions for their children, but we can’t be in contravention of the human rights code and our beliefs about inclusion.”
As Pontes notes, education about “healthy sexuality” is something many parents are happy to leave to the experts. And just as many of them, it seems, are prepared to let public schools handle the even more highly charged business of teaching and enforcing the values — tolerance, for one — that underpin courses like Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum. It is one of the characteristics of Canada’s laissez-faire multiculturalism: the established majority is all in favour of according minorities equal rights but prefers not to get involved in the sometimes messy business of ensuring conformity to the country’s core values.
That is certainly not the case in Europe and Scandinavia, where politicians of all persuasions have loudly proclaimed “the death of multiculturalism,” responding to an unprecedented wave of Muslim migration with demands for complete assimilation. Since 2011, it has been illegal in France for women to wear full face-covering veils such as niqabs in public. Overtly anti-immigrant parties now occupy legislative seats in Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and Greece.
Some European writers and politicians insist that anyone who does not recognize the threat observant Muslims pose to what they call “Enlightenment values” is blindly welcoming the destruction of their own societies.
Those views have echoed widely in Quebec, with its long-standing and legitimate concerns about cultural survival. The result was a provincial commission assigned to investigate reasonable accommodation in the province. In its 2008 report, the two-person commission largely dismissed fears of undue outsider influence while encouraging immigrants to integrate into Quebec society.
“In exchange,” commissioner Charles Taylor declared, “the whole society must give them the tools to do all this.”
English-speaking Canadians appeared to embrace a similar position during last fall’s federal election campaign when they rejected Harper’s invitation to push back against observant Muslims and what he called “a culture that is anti-woman.” But there has been no equivalent of the Bouchard-Taylor commission to help negotiate the boundaries in English Canada; multiculturalism is universally accepted but rarely investigated. The difficult business of making it work is largely outsourced to the public schools.
Growing numbers of European intellectuals would identify that as a fatal flaw guaranteed to create permanent ethnic ghettos and ultimately bring about social breakdown. The fact that nothing of the sort has happened or appears to be happening — Canadian multiculturalism remains a uniquely successful form of social integration, not division — shows just how well our schools do their job.
It is in public schools that immigrant families discover the hard terms of the bargain they have accepted in seeking a better life in Canada: in return for a brighter future, Canada steals their children. Different cultural traditions may survive, accommodations can be made, but the basic bargain is unalterable.
This is the unavoidably harsh reality of immigration, and one big reason why a largely innocuous curriculum focused on the human body — that most intimate of subjects — was able to inspire such panic among parents at Thorncliffe Park school. The protests affirm just how effectively the children of immigrants are being shaped by a new identity.
Canadian multiculturalism works because it ignores culture, affirming universal rights and values in the place of blood and belonging. No effort to uphold old-country beliefs can touch it, and no effort to inculcate host-country traditions is needed to support it.
But allegiance to Canadian values is not something that springs to life spontaneously in Canadian air. It depends on people like Susan Mabey to explain to seven-year-old children that Jews don’t kill Muslims and gay people will not burn in the fires of hell. Or to stand in front of graffiti sprayed on school walls, as Mabey did one morning last September at Thorncliffe Park, so its hateful message wouldn’t be the first thing students and parents saw as they arrived.
And it’s here, in the hurly-burly of a crowded elementary school, where every lesson becomes a painstaking negotiation between clashing cultures, that the real work of making new Canadians gets done.
“There is something to be said for maintaining the value of public education,” Mabey says.John Barber is a journalist in Toronto.
FOR DISCUSSION: Should one's faith and tradition take precedence over comprehensive sexual education?