By Jonathan Montpetit, The Canadian Press
MONTREAL – Quebec teenagers may be left groping in the dark about the dangers and joys of sexual intimacy as the province cuts high school sex-education classes.
Sweeping Quebec education reform is eliminating class time for sex ed and asking teachers to talk about the birds and bees in all classes, from math to gym.
“This makes Quebec the only province in Canada that does not specifically mandate some form of sexual health education,” said Alex McKay, a research co-ordinator with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada.
“Quebec is bucking a trend because other provinces have ever so slowly been increasing what they mandate be taught about sexual health.”
While some sex-ed teachers laud a so-called holistic approach, they also fear students will miss important information.
“It sounds good on paper but in practice means that most teachers aren’t talking about sex, either because they aren’t comfortable, aren’t trained or don’t have the time,” said a sex educator with community group Head and Hands.
Teachers with Head and Hands have started offering workshops and anonymous counselling at several Montreal-area high schools to fill the gap.
“Students are less likely to talk to their teachers because they may not trust the information will remain confidential,” said the sex educator, who asked to be identified only as Jocelyn.
“Or they may not want to tell (a teacher) something and then have to see them every day for the rest of the year.”
Sex ed in Quebec is falling to the side as the province emphasizes core subjects like languages and history – a move that teachers’ unions are bitterly contesting.
Teacher training in sex ed is optional and unions admit some balk at broaching the subject.
“Not all the teachers are comfortable with it,” said Yves Bellavance, a spokesman for a Montreal union which represents some 8,000 elementary and high school teachers. “It’s difficult to deal with sexuality in a math course.”
Sex ed is already over for grades seven through nine. Grade 10 and 11 will follow in the next two years.
Quebec’s education department says resources are available to sexually curious teens.
“There are complementary educational services which are also available, such as nurses and psychologists,” said Stephanie Tremblay, the department’s spokeswoman.
“It is a collaborative effort which doesn’t rest on the shoulders of just one person.”
Sex education in Quebec had a bad reputation even before reforms. Students received five hours of class time per year and anecdotes abound of teachers relying on educational videos that did little to answer student’s questions.
“This laissez-fair attitude is definitely a Quebec issue,” said Shirley Steinberg, a professor with McGill University’s department of Integrated Studies in Education.
She pointed out that teens are having sex at younger ages and suffering higher rates of sexually transmitted infections.
“We need to know they’re getting (sex-ed) and we need to know what they’re getting,” said Steinberg, who specializes in adolescent education policies. “If I’m having someone teach my kid math, I’d like them to know math. If I’m having someone teach sex education, I’d like them to understand it.”
But sex education can be controversial for schools with students coming from many ethnic groups.
Many parents object to handing out condoms in class, something sex experts consider an essential step.
Head and Hands says many Montreal schools shunned their program for its pro-sex and homosexual-friendly message.
Without a government mandate, McKay believes schools will simply opt-out of teaching sex-ed.
“If left completely to their own devices many teachers, many schools and many school boards will chose to do nothing,” McKay said.
“Because that’s a more comfortable spot for them to be in.”