When the Ontario government introduced its new sex-ed curriculum in 2015, Glen Canning was living several provinces over in Nova Scotia but decided to take a look anyway. He wound up reading the entire curriculum – all 239 pages – and when he finished, his thoughts immediately went to his daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons, who died from suicide two years earlier.
“The very first thing I thought was every single school in Canada has to have this. Every single one,” said Canning, a writer and photographer who now lives in Toronto.
“I really wished there was something like that in Nova Scotia 10 years ago. Because if there was – and if consent and empathy and respect were being taught in schools in Nova Scotia – I honestly believe that I would still have my daughter with me today.”
Rehtaeh was 17 years old when she killed herself. Her parents say she told them she was sexually assaulted by four teens at a party in 2011, and she became suicidal after a photo from that night – depicting a boy penetrating Rehtaeh while giving a thumbs-up – was circulated around town, leading to months of bullying and harassment.
Rehtaeh’s story sparked a national conversation around issues of rape and consent, as well as an independent review that found errors in how her case was investigated.
While no sexual assault charges were ultimately laid, two boys were convicted of child pornography charges.
For Canning, his daughter’s suffering opened his eyes to the importance of sexual education in schools. So when he learned the Doug Ford government was scrapping Ontario’s updated sex-ed curriculum – and replacing it with a version written 20 years ago – he took to Twitter to express his outrage.
In one tweet, he shared a note that he says was written by one of the boys alleged to have assaulted his daughter that was posted to Facebook around the time of her death. The boy described his version of what happened between him and Rehtaeh, who was so drunk she was vomiting out a window. The boy wrote that he was young, drunk and stupid and regretted “everything that happened”; he also complained about being labelled a rapist, the “most hurtfull (sic) word I can think of.”
“This is why consent needs to be taught in school,” Canning tweeted on Thursday. “If EVERY parent isn’t educating their children at home, none of our children are safe.”
Canning is now working with a campaign to fight for the 2015 sex-ed curriculum, which he hopes to see back in every classroom across the province. On Friday, the Star spoke with Canning about his daughter Rehtaeh, Ontario’s sex-ed fight, and why he believes a progressive sexual education has the power to save lives.
You say Rehtaeh would still be alive today if her school had taught a sex-ed curriculum like the one that was just repealed in Ontario. Why do you think that?
Because the curriculum talks about mental health, it talks about suicide and it talks about consent. I think the young men involved in Rehtaeh’s case don’t believe that what they were doing was sexual assault or rape. They don’t believe that whatsoever and I think a lot of the kids in Rehtaeh’s school who victim-blamed her had no idea around issues of consent.
If they had, they may not have been so willing to torment her. If there were courses at school about sexting and sharing an image like that of her – people would have said this is child porn, this is against the law. And other kids would’ve come to her defence, or they might have confronted the ones who were victim blaming and calling her names.
What kind of sex education was available to Rehtaeh and her classmates when they were going to school in Nova Scotia?
Nothing whatsoever. That issue came up after Rehtaeh died and a lot of her friends spoke out and said ‘we don’t learn about any of this in school; we learn about the pill, we learn about birth control, condoms, how your body functions and develops.’ But there wasn’t talk around sexual violence and consent. There just wasn’t.
What do you like about the sex-ed curriculum that the Wynne government introduced in 2015?
I really liked that it talked a lot about the LGBTQ community and gender. (It reflects) the reality of society today and burying our head in the sand and pretending it isn’t there isn’t going to make anything go away. And it’s definitely not going to help kids stay safe.
You recently tweeted about a note that was sent to you by someone believed to be one of Rehtaeh’s alleged assaulters. You hold this up as an example of why consent should be taught in schools. Tell me about that.
The second part I liked was about consent. But the real appeal to me was talking to children in grades 1, 2 and 3, and teaching them about respect, boundaries of other people, and asking to touch someone. Finding out what consent really means. You start that at a young age and you’ll have just an incredible impact on sexual violence in Canada. Not only will it educate people on what consent is, it will educate bystanders to say, ‘Look this is wrong, and I know this is wrong,’ and they can intervene and do something when they see something happening.
That was the week Rehteah died. This was a very long message posted to (Rehtaeh’s mom) Leah on Facebook.
When I started reading the parts where Rehtaeh started to throw up and he carried her over to the window, and who’s going to go first, and then he laid her on the bed – all of this implies to me that Rehteah was not even able to walk, let alone give consent.
Then he ends off his note upset and mad because people are calling him a rapist and he says it’s the worst thing he can ever think of. But to me, he obviously knows what a rapist is, but he doesn’t know what rape is.
I honestly think this: They believe in their hearts that because Rehtaeh wasn’t screaming and fighting and saying no, they weren’t assaulting her. And if they had known the issues around consent, perhaps they may not have done that.
What do you think when you hear some of the concerns being raised by parents who oppose the 2015 sex-ed curriculum?
I read his letter and I thought right there: This is how out of touch kids are in school, that they could do something like that and actually believe it was consensual.
I think there’s a lot of misinformation, and I think they use things to hide behind. I hear parents say sex ed is up to parents and it’s something that should happen in the home. But when your child leaves the home, the sex ed you taught them is everybody else’s problem. And if you taught them nothing then man, you have no idea where your child is learning this stuff from.
What would you say to Premier Ford if you could get him in a room today?
If parents were teaching this at home, we wouldn’t be in this place right now. Because if they’re teaching this at home, then why in 2018 do we have kids who are homophobic and racist and sexist and misogynist? Why do we have that? We have that because they’re not teaching kids at home.
I’d say to him that if the sex-ed curriculum that he has – that Kathleen Wynne gave him – was in schools when my daughter was alive, she’d still be alive. And he needs to remember that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This isn’t about anyone other than the kids. This is about keeping children safe, and every child safe. That’s what I’d say to him.
Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar