The classroom takes on the bedroom

Community groups create new strategies for sex education in Quebec

On the evening of March 16, forty McGill Education students convened on campus for a student-organized teacher training event on a topic that continues to ignite controversy and concern amongst teachers and the general public alike: sex education.

This event was the first of its kind at McGill, and was led by sex educators from AIDS Community Care Montreal (ACCM), a volunteer-based, community organization founded in 1987 whose aim, according to the organization’s mission statement, is “to enhance the quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS, to prevent HIV transmission, and to promote community awareness and action.”

In 2007, a team of ACCM volunteers began the process of creating and assembling a Teacher Toolkit, which provides teacher-friendly sex education curricula, including lesson plans and multimedia resources designed with Quebec’s current education program in mind. Since October 2010, ACCM has expanded its services and has been training teachers in teaching sex education. The ACCM Teacher Toolkit, along with other similar community-based sex education programs, such as Montreal’s Head and Hands “Sense Project,” speak to the need for increased discussion and dissemination of knowledge and information over this sensitive topic, an issue that has become increasingly salient since Quebec’s education reform in 2005, when sex education was removed from the province’s curriculum.

“The idea [behind the reform] was that [sex education] would become a more holistic process, and would be infused throughout the entire curriculum,” explained Lisa Trimble, a McGill instructor and sex education researcher. “The problem is that it is optional, and teachers are not given any training, resources, or support to teach sex education.” Furthermore, the Ministère d’Éducation, Loisirs, et Sports (MELS) indicates that it is now the responsibility of all teachers to “ensure that students develop a sense of responsibility for adopting good habits with respect to health, safety, and sexuality.”

Additionally, with the increasing predominance of sexually-transmitted infections, teen pregnancies, and bullying targeted on youth of various sexual orientations, “youth are on the frontlines,” commented Amanda Unruh, McGill’s Health Promotion Coordinator. “The need for quality sex education is clear.” This need has been met by community organizations, such as ACCM, which Trimble explained, “work with schools and other youth community organizations to get sex positive [and] queer positive sexual education workshops, based [on] a harm reduction philosophy, and youth empowerment praxis out to Montreal youth.” While these services have been effective in dealing with the questions, concerns, and curiosities of young people, Trimble added that “youth in Montreal have consistently called for more sex education and more access to conversations about emotions, pleasure, desire, and identities.”

Yet while MELS has given teachers the responsibility to educate youth about sexuality, they have not provided teachers with a standard sex education curriculum that would provide the tools, information, and training to teach the subject matter with confidence and ease. Marla Schreiber, ACCM’s Teacher Toolkit Coordinator and sex educator summed up teachers’ apprehensions well: “it’s one thing if you fumble a date in history… If you make a mistake in Sex Ed, there can be dire consequences.” Unruh was involved in the initial development of ACCM’s Teacher Toolkit in 2007, and emphasized that “not everyone is comfortable talking about sex. How can they be if they were never trained to do it? An English teacher wouldn’t be expected to teach Math without being knowledgeable in the field.” The reform has asked teachers to do just that.

Though the Teacher Toolkit is a positive move in the right direction, Unruh highlighted the fact that the training is about two to four hours long, which may not be comprehensive. Robert Beaudry, a third-year Education student who attended the training event on March 16 echoed this concern: “I thought I knew everything, and I realized I didn’t, which is gratifying. But I also learned that this should actually constitute a full semester course, as part of the McGill Bachelor of Education.”

While at present neither the province nor the university offer teachers standardized training in the subject of sex education, Fiona Benson, Director of the Office of Student Teaching at McGill, assured that she has been “trying for some time to organize a MELS-led workshop for faculty [at McGill]. I am hopeful that this will come about in the fall.”

As evinced by the attendance at the ACCM teacher training, pre-service teachers are demanding training and taking their education into their own hands. Though a sex education course is not presently offered, teachers can become aware of available training. As Schreiber emphasized, “you don’t need to be an expert. There is a universe of support out there.”