What they don’t know will hurt them: no consent, gender identity or social media in the Ontario sex ed curriculum

By Leslie Anne St. Amour

In my opinion, to call the court’s decision dismissing the case against the Ontario government in respect to the repeal and replacement of the sex ed curriculum disappointing would be an understatement. I would consider instead: disheartening, or infuriating.

In 2018 the Ontario government issued a directive to repeal the 2015 sexual education curriculum and replace it with the 2010 curriculum, which had the same sexual education content as the 1998 curriculum. The previous curriculum did not include among other things consent, gender identity and expression, cyberbully or sexting. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), and a parent of a child affected brought two applications to judicially review this directive, which essentially required the determination of one question: whether the directive and the events surrounding the decision infringed the Charter rights of teachers, students, and/or parents.

Arguments were made regarding sections 2(b), 7 and 15(1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in this case by the ETFO and the CCLA. Several interveners also took part to provide other perspectives including: Grand Council of Treaty 3, Justice for Children and Youth and Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario.  This article provides my opinion on the Charter analysis provided by the court, but I will note there was also a discussion of jurisdiction and standing.

I understand how the court came to dismiss the applications, but I still believe it was incredibly important that the case was brought. We need queer youth, young women and girls and survivors of sexual violence to know we stand with them. The court did clarify that teachers can teach from the 2015 curriculum with no fear of professional repercussions and in many ways, that is a win for students with willing teachers. But the concern remains for students of teachers unwilling to teach this content for personal reasons or because of the opinions of those around them.

2(b) – Freedom of Expression

In addressing the section 2(b) freedom of expression analysis, the court examined the combination of the removal of topics from the curriculum along with statements made by members of the government and the creation of a website which allowed for the submission of information on teachers and classrooms. The complainants alleged that this constellation of factors established a violation of teachers’ freedom of expression by preventing them from teaching facets of the 2015 curriculum which were removed by the replacement with the 2010 curriculum.

In finding that there was no 2(b) violation, the judge appears to rely on the fact that counsel clarified the positions of the Minister in respect to what was fair game for teachers to teach under the new curriculum. I am frustrated by this result as this clarification would not have come had this not been brought to court and runs counter to the common understanding of the statements made by the government, which the court itself called “Ill-considered”. However, I expect some teachers will find solace in this decision as it confirms their ability to provide necessary information on consent, gender identity, sexual orientation, sexting and cyberbullying to their students without fear of professional sanctions.

7 – Guarantee to Life, Liberty and Security of the Person

While working with the Asper Centre, within our working group, I focused on the s. 7 arguments and I knew this would be a difficult argument to make but I hadn’t expected the court’s focus on a lack of evidence of harm stemming from the 2010 curriculum. Jurisprudence on s. 7 does not require direct scientific evidence, but rather a sufficient casual connection is enough to draw a reasonable inference on a balance of probabilities.

In my mind, every sexual assault which was committed by a person who had been taught sex ed in Ontario during the time period the 2010 curriculum was in use or was perpetrated against someone had been taught sex ed in Ontario during that time arguably had a link to the curriculum. This is due to a lack of education around the requirement of consent to engage in sexual activity. I thought of the young men and women who didn’t know they needed to say yes, didn’t know how to say no or didn’t know what to do when their no or lack of yes meant nothing to someone else. I think of the young men and women now having to face the reality of having engaged in sexual misconduct or assault because no one taught them any better in a world which rewards toxic masculinity and rape culture and encourages women to bite their tongue and let it go.

And so, I knew this argument would be hard to make because a government does not have a positive burden to ensure life, liberty and security of the person and because a policy of one government does not bind the next, but I hadn’t expected part of the issue to be a conceived lack of harm.

15(1) – Equality

In addressing the s 15(1) arguments the court references the characterization of the curriculum as a benefit which is not available to certain groups however, does not address this point specifically in its reasons. The court reiterates the jurisprudence surrounding the fact that the repeal of a policy does not constitute a Charter violation if it removes a benefit that previously existed. However, my understanding of the framing of the issue as a benefit which is not available to certain groups such as LGBTQ students is a desire to see the current curriculum, separate from the repeal itself, as a violation.

By providing a sexual education curriculum which does not teach content relevant to diverse gender identities or sexual orientations, cis and straight students are receiving a benefit from the government that other students cannot receive. That benefit is a sexual education curriculum which is relevant to them. The court does not address the s. 15 claim from this angle, addressing only the lack of requirement to continue to provide a benefit that had previously been received.

I want to end this article by saying that I and many others will continue to stand with the students impacted by the repeal and this decision and continue to do what we can to support them and their access to the necessary information they are no longer guaranteed in the classroom. Therefore, I’ve provided a list of links below to resources that are working to fill this gap:

http://www.mysexed.ca/resources.html

https://www.youthline.ca

http://www.ppt.on.ca/resources/fact-sheets/

http://teenhealthsource.com

Leslie Anne St. Amour is 2L JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and a former Asper Centre clinic student. [read Leslie Anne’s previous blog post reflecting on her work on this case as an Asper Centre Clinic student.]

 

 

Above the Law? Understanding the Notwithstanding Clause

By Catherine Ma

On September 20, 2018 the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights convened a panel with U of T Law Professors Yasmin Dawood and Lorraine Weinrib, and Goldblatt Partners’ Steven Barrett to discuss the constitutional challenge to the Better Local Government Act. The proposed legislation would have reduced the size of Toronto’s city council in the midst of its municipal election, as well as ending mandatory election of regional councillors across all regional municipalities. Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba struck down the legislation, finding that it was an unjustified infringement to s.2(b) of the Charter. The Court of Appeal of Ontario ultimately granted a stay of the Superior Court’s decision until a full appeal could be heard after the election. Its effect was allowing the Better Local Government Act to govern the 2018 municipal elections in Ontario.

Before the Court of Appeal rendered its decision, Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford had threatened to invoke the notwithstanding clause if a stay was not granted. The notwithstanding clause allows the federal government or a provincial government to enact legislation that overrides certain fundamental freedoms, legal rights, and equality rights guaranteed in the Charter. Premier Ford further warned that he would not hesitate to use the notwithstanding clause in the future, without providing specific details.

The Panel Discussion

The panelists all provided unique perspectives regarding the constitutional challenge to the Better Local Government Act and the notwithstanding clause itself.

Above the Law panelists: Prof Yasmin Dawood, Prof Lorraine Weinrib, Steven Barrett [click on photo for link to webcast of panel]

Professor Dawood summarized the Superior Court and Court of Appeal decisions. She noted the that it was “novel” to argue that the Better Local Government Act infringed s.2(b) by depriving voters of their right to cast a vote that would enable effective representation. She questioned whether the legislation also infringed the s.2(b) rights of political donors.  Professor Dawood ultimately concluded, “Interrupting an election midstream is inappropriate and completely inconsistent with notions of democratic and electoral fairness, even if it is the case that the provincial government has the power to do so.” Democratic legitimacy and electoral fairness requires that the provincial government consult all stakeholders before changing election laws.

Professor Weinrib focused on the principles that govern use of the notwithstanding clause. She emphasized that the drafters envisioned the notwithstanding clause as a narrow exception, used only when a Charter right would “fundamentally damage society’s stability and well-being.” She added that the notwithstanding clause cannot be applied retroactively; in this case, the provincial government cannot invoke the clause since candidates already spent resources, social capital, volunteers, and energy; and interacted with their constituents. Professor Weinrib further criticized Premier Ford for threatening to invoke the notwithstanding clause whenever the courts strike down provincial legislation as unconstitutional. She recommended asking the Supreme Court of Canada to clarify the constitutional principles that govern the use of the notwithstanding clause.

Mr. Barrett discussed specific Charter arguments made in the case, as well as the Court of Appeal’s decision. He commented that for the stay application, it was “unusual” for the Court of Appeal to examine the substantive merits of the s.2(b) argument rather than the usual factors for a stay application. He criticized the Court of Appeal for ignoring how the Better Local Government Act undermines the effectiveness of candidates’ political speech. Mr. Barrett criticized Premier Ford for threatening to routinely use the notwithstanding clause in the future as well. He warned this threat has a “corrosive effect” on judicial legitimacy and potentially judicial independence. Individuals must make it clear that using the notwithstanding clause is only appropriate in exceptional circumstances.

Other Uses of the Notwithstanding Clause

Provincial governments have rarely used the notwithstanding clause, particularly for its intended legal function. From 1982 to 1985, the Parti Québécois placed a notwithstanding clause in all of its new legislation and retroactively amended all existing laws to include such a clause in order to protest the enactment of the Constitution Act, 1982, which it had not signed. Its actions were a political protest, rather than aimed at protecting a specific law from a Charter challenge.

In 1988, Quebec’s provincial government invoked the notwithstanding clause in response to the companion cases, Ford v Quebec (AG) and Devine v Quebec (AG), which struck down provincial legislation that prohibited the public use of all languages other than French. The legislation already had a notwithstanding clause to override s.2(b) of the Charter; however, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the legislation unjustifiably infringed a similar guarantee in Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The provincial government then introduced a virtually identical bill, except with clauses to override the Charter and the Quebec Charter for a five-year period. Following the expiration of this period, the provincial government amended the law. The amended law did not include a notwithstanding clause.

In 2017, Saskatchewan’s provincial government used the notwithstanding clause in the School Choice Protection Act. Its use responded to Good Spirit School Division No. 204 v Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212, which held that funding non-Catholic students who attended Catholic schools was an unjustified infringement of s.2(a) and s.15(1) of the Charter. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall justified its use on the basis that the legislation would protect school choice for parents and students, including faith-based options. There was no political opposition to its use.

Most recently, Québec Premier François Legault threatened to use the notwithstanding clause in order to pass a controversial “secularism law.” This proposed legislation would prevent public servants – including teachers, police officers, and judges – from wearing religious garments while performing public functions. The law is widely interpreted as targeting Muslim women who wear a niqab.

It is hoped that Ford and Legault’s recent threats will not embolden others to invoke the notwithstanding clause inappropriately. In light of these threats, the appropriate use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause must continue to be scrutinized, perhaps as Professor Weinrib suggested by the Supreme Court of Canada itself.

Catherine Ma is a 3L JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and was a student leader of the Asper Centre’s Indigenous Rights student working group in 2017-2018.