New rules proposed by the Government of Alberta this week will have a "chilling effect" on the delivery of sexual health education in schools, said Frédérique Chabot, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.
During a news conference on Thursday, Premier Danielle Smith said the government will require parents to opt in to all education related to gender identity and sexuality in schools, and sexual health materials from third-party organizations will require approval from the education ministry before teachers can use them in their instruction.
Chabot said existing materials, curricula, and guidelines for sexual health education are based on sound scientific evidence and have been in place for many years.
"And right now, they are being instrumentalized as a way to rally people," Chabot said. "And fear-based messaging [is] being introduced about these educational materials that [is] not based in fact."
Chabot said she is concerned because the changes will likely cut some students out of key education about how to stay healthy and develop healthy relationships.
"We are very concerned to see this trend across the country of government who are introducing new policies, new legislation, that will limit access to key health information to health care for different populations. And that basically infringes on many people's rights. This is something that we're seeing rapidly escalating across Canada," she said.
Unprecedented changes to sex-ed delivery
While similar legislation restricting sex education has been introduced in other provinces, Alberta's proposed changes would make it the only province to have sex ed be entirely opt-in for students, requiring parental consent for any lesson dealing with "sensitive subjects."
"In our classrooms, we will ensure discussions about gender identity and other sensitive subjects happen at the right time and with the parent-child relationship at its core. This will include a parental opt-in consent requirement when teachers plan to discuss subject matter related to gender identity, sexual orientation or sexuality for K to 12 students," Smith said.
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said this will create a bureaucratic burden for teachers, requiring thousands and thousands of additional forms to be signed to deliver existing sexual health lessons.
Notley also said she believes "the plan to get into the process of reviewing materials related to sexual health is the first step towards bringing pro-life education into our schools."
Parents can currently opt-out of sex education classes for their child in Alberta. Chabot said even this is often not recommended, but it still allows school boards and education ministries to fully integrate sexual health into the education plan for all students. When this education is made opt-in, it gets sidelined and more difficult to access, Chabot said.
'Chilling effect' on sexual health education
"This is going to have a very big chilling effect, in terms of even providing educational materials," she said. "This is already a topic where educators are often not feeling empowered to offer these classes and these materials. And now there is a clear message that these are risky conversations, this is not favoured by government."
It is often the case that teachers have insufficient support in delivering these materials, which is why they turn to third-parties like professional sexual health educators or public health nurses who are trained to provide materials to students in "in the most effective, safe, trauma-informed and appropriate way," Chabot said.
If the ministry of education has the final say over what third-party materials can be used, teachers will lose these professional supports, she said.
Comprehensive education is made of building blocks over many years, and messaging "that is meant to scare people about what these classes are even about" risks jeopardizing access, she said.
"This starts with what it's like to take care of your own boundaries, or how to be a good friend, or how to say 'no,' or how to keep yourself safe. And how do you take care of your body, how you brush your teeth," Chabot said.
At some point, educators have built enough capacity to have more complex conversations about bodily autonomy, consent, and taking care of yourself in relationships.
"So, these are skills that we need as humans and that are key to a healthy life."
Education and innocence
The changes to sex-education delivery were announced along with a host of new policies related to 2SLGBTQ+ youth. Under the proposed policies, youth under 16 will require parental permission to change their preferred name or pronouns, and access to gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth will be restricted.
When speaking about these policies on Thursday, Smith said they are intended to protect children and their futures.
Research has shown the best line of defence against abuse or lasting health problems is early, appropriate education. An article published in the Canadian Journal of Family and Youth says children who know about sexuality and body safety, such as proper names for genitals, are far less vulnerable to sexual abuse.
"This early understanding and ability to effectively communicate about body parts and ability for a child to recognize what is inappropriate sexual behaviour is absolutely paramount in providing intervention when an adult is able to easily recognize when a child is being sexually abused, and could save the child from continued abuse," the article says.
"There is no possible better way to protect a child’s innocence than sparing that child from being sexually abused."