Critics call Sask. government’s new policy on sexual health education troubling

The province has mandated that Saskatchewan schools must now inform parents about the sexual health education curriculum, and let them opt out of it on behalf of their children. 

Experts, doctors and the official Opposition are raising the alarm on the move, calling the new policy harmful and concerning.

On Tuesday morning, Minister of Education Dustin Duncan made the announcement and also said that schools will now need permission from parents or guardians to change preferred names or pronouns of students who are under the age of 16.

Duncan said school boards must immediately pause their involvement with third-party organizations who provide sexual health education, such as the ARC Foundation and the SOGI 123 program, which promote an inclusive approach to sexual orientation and gender identity. From now on only teachers will be able to present sexual education material in the classroom. In the meantime, the province will review educational resources.

“What we want to ensure is that students can be successful and that parents are more involved in their children’s education. In the case of sexual health education, 15 out of 27 school divisions already have a version of this policy,” Duncan said. 

A man in a purple and white suit sits at a table. A microphone and a bottle of water sits in front of him.
Saskatchewan Education Minister Dustin Duncan announced changes to the sex education policies in the province’s schools. (Adam Hunter/CBC)

Expanding the sexual education policy to all 27 school divisions will provide consistency, he said.

“Going forward, we will be discussing this with school divisions. We’ll be discussing this with parents … what parents are saying is that they want to be more involved,” Duncan said. 

LISTEN| CBC Radio host Stefani Langenegger talks with education minister Dustin Duncan after the announcement: 

The Morning Edition – Sask17:02Sask. education minister talks new policy requiring schools to get parental permission for pronoun changes

The province’s education minister is making some changes ahead of the new school year. Dustin Duncan will require schools to get parental consent if a child under 16 wants to be called a different name — or have different pronouns used. Host Stefani Langenegger talks with education minister Dustin Duncan.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Duncan was asked if the opt-out provision might have a negative impact on children. He said that is one of the topics the Ministry of Education will broach with school divisions. 

“Maybe there will be alternative resources in the event that a parent objects to a resource that’s being used,” Duncan said, adding he believes parents need to step up and be more involved in explaining sexual education to their children. 

Concerns over sexual health 

Saskatoon child psychiatrist Tamara Hinz said she found the province’s announcement troubling. 

“I was very surprised and very disappointed. I think everybody in the province likely was quite caught off guard by this,” Hinz said. “I think there’s real harm in othering education around reproductive health and consent compared to other parts of the curriculum.”

WATCH| Child psychiatrist says she is disappointed about government’s decision: 

Child psychiatrist says she is disappointed about government’s decision on parental permission and banning outside sex-ed presentations

Education Minister Dustin Duncan says that going forward, schools must now seek the permission of parents or guardians before allowing students under the age of 16 to change what the province refers to as their “preferred” name and pronouns. The province is also banning outside groups from giving sex-ed presentations in schools. A Saskatoon psychiatrist who works with youth says these decisions were made without consulting those who will be most affected by the changes and is concerned about the harm that will be done.

Hinz said there are many studies that show strong correlations between the lack of sex education or poor quality sex education and rates of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted or teen pregnancies.

“Particularly in a province like Saskatchewan that already is grappling with extremely high rates of things like HIV and syphilis … it’s just really astonishing to me that we would be taking a step back in that kind of really important education.”

A woman sits on a rock in a field where they have been placed in concentric circles.
Julian Wotherspoon, executive director of Planned Parenthood Regina, said limiting sex education options in schools is not going to help with Saskatchewan’s high STI, teen pregnancy and domestic violence rates. (Ali Thompson/Ali Lauren Photography)

Julian Wotherspoon, executive director of Planned Parenthood Regina, said Saskatchewan’s high STI, teen pregnancy and domestic abuse numbers are not going to be helped by allowing people to pick and choose what information children get. 

“I think this is an overstep by the government, and then also perhaps just a misunderstanding of our role as parents,” said Wotherspoon, who is a mother. 

“When my children come home to me with material that they’ve heard in the classroom that they have questions about, that’s a gift. Schools are a place for our children to go out and get that wider view of what is out there in the world. And it’s our job as parents to bring them home and to have conversations with them.”

LISTEN | New sex ed. polices introduced:  

The Afternoon Edition – Sask11:41Planned Parenthood reacts to Sask. education policy changes

Parents will now have to give their children permission to receive sexual health education and to change their name and pronouns at Saskatchewan schools. Julian Wotherspoon is the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Regina, she joins Garth Materie to share how this may impact students.

The policy shift comes after an incident at Lumsden High School in June, in which a student picked up sex. ed. material with graphic content that had been brought to the school by a Planned Parenthood sexual health presenter. That led to Duncan directing school boards to suspend any upcoming presentations with Planned Parenthood Regina.

When asked about it on Tuesday, Duncan said that the situation “partly” led to the policy shift, but that there were other factors as well, such as feedback from teachers and parents about the sex ed. curriculum. 

As for sexual education being taught only by Saskatchewan teachers, Planned Parenthood agrees with the province. 

“I do think that more teachers should be teaching sex ed. and related topics in the classroom. But what we do hear from from teachers is that they’re just not equipped to do that. They don’t have readily available tools,” Wotherspoon said. 

Planned Parenthood would like to help teachers get that education, she said. 

“We would much rather support educators so that they have the tools that they need to do that effectively.”

Both Wotherspoon and Hinz said they would like to see the province consult with and listen to sexual education and health experts.

“Whether it comes from offices of children’s advocates or mental health experts, sexual health experts … These are the people who should be informing policy around these really important topics,” Hinz said. 

‘Not responsible leadership’

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Carla Beck called the new sexual education policy “harmful.”

“Disappointed isn’t the right word for it. But it’s a new low,” she said. 

A woman with glasses sits in front of a window in an office.
Saskatchewan NDP leader Carla Beck said the province’s new policy around sex education is a new low. (Adam Bent/CBC)

Parents have always had the ability to know what their children are learning about in school, she said.

“They’ve always had the ability to go to the school or pick up the phone and talk to the teacher to exclude their children from particular lessons if that was their choice.”  

The Opposition advocates for age appropriate, evidence-based sex education, Beck said, adding the new policy is problematic, especially due to Saskatchewan’s high STI statistics. 

“The government has seen fit to suggest that more information is the problem here. It’s not responsible leadership,” she said. 

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