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How Rob Ford’s brother campaigned—and won—on an anti-sex-education platform

Parents opposed to Ontario’s revised sex-ed curriculum protest outside a Malton event attended by Premier Kathleen Wynne in 2015. Photo by Rob Beintema.

Canada looms large in the liberal imagination. Long idealized as the kinder, gentler counterpoint to its southern neighbor, the True North’s brand is now closely linked with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a handsome fetish object for American Democrats suffering Obama-withdrawal syndrome. The Trudeau Mash Note has become a genre of journalism, from an August 2017 Rolling Stone cover story (“Justin Trudeau: Why Can’t He Be Our President?”) to steady-stream BuzzFeed clickbait (“Justin Trudeau High-Fiving a Girl Dressed as Wonder Woman at Pride Is Peak Trudeau”) to a June 13 New Yorker op-ed titled “Why Justin Trudeau is Able to Stand Up to Donald Trump.” In the latter piece, Adam Gopnik used the prime minister’s rebuke to Trump’s bullying at the G-7 summit to muse on “the Canadian national character, if I may call it that, that makes Canadians so ready to take on bullies.” Gopnik dismisses with just one sentence an inconvenient fact: on June 7, Canada’s largest province elected what will likely become the most right-wing government in its history.

“Folks, make no mistake about it,” said Doug Ford on January 29 while announcing his candidacy for Ontario’s Progressive Conservative leadership race. “The elites of this party—the ones who have shut out the grassroots—do not want me in this race.” This may seem like an odd line from a millionaire businessman and former city councilor whose father was a Conservative member of Ontario’s provincial parliament, and whose brother was the mayor of Toronto. Many factors contributed to Ford’s eventual success in the Ontario election: an unpopular Liberal Party incumbency that had hung on since 2003; a split in the center-to-left vote between the Liberals and the social-democratic NDP; and the effectiveness of Ford’s own hazy, nonspecific brand of populism. But before that, it is true that Ford was a contentious figure in his own party whose ascent to leadership largely depended on energizing Canadian social conservatives.

How liberal is Canada? Liberal enough that Liberal Party leader Kathleen Wynne could become Ontario’s first openly gay premiere without it becoming a major campaign issue. But also conservative enough that one of her signature legislative achievements—the first comprehensive update of the province’s sex-education curriculum since 1998—has become a central battleground in the Canadian culture wars. According to the Campaign Life Coalition, a socially conservative lobby group, Wynne was “a long time, gay-activist” who “rammed through . . . curriculum and policies designed to indoctrinate children into accepting homosexuality as normal and healthy.” Doug Ford put it more politely while campaigning for the Progressive Conservative leadership: “Unlike the Liberals, I know that parents, not government, are our first educators when it comes to our children. The sex-ed curriculum should be about facts, not teaching Liberal ideology. Parents should have the first and final say on what they want to teach their kids past this point.”

Doug Ford’s careful language will be familiar to anyone who lived in Toronto during the mayoralty of his brother, Rob (who briefly rose to international notoriety when a video emerged of him smoking crack cocaine). During his four-year term (2010–14), Rob Ford was beloved by many for his skill at retail politics (he was legendary for his reputation of always returning every constituent phone call) and intensely controversial for his (zealous) fiscal and (cagey) social conservatism. His frosty relationship with the city’s LGBTQ+ communities was a four-year headache.

Social conservatism is a tricky line to walk in multicultural Toronto, and both Rob and Doug were skillful at maintaining just enough plausible deniability. Every year like clockwork he declined to march in the Pride parade, which somehow always seemed to conflict with his family’s annual cottage trip. His votes against funding for Pride events, HIV/AIDS initiatives, and an LGBTQ+ homeless shelter could be rationalized as consistent with his small-government conservatism (as Doug memorably put it, “Rob’s a spendaphobic, not a homophobic”). When city council voted to hang the Pride flag at City Hall during the Sochi Olympics to protest LGBTQ+ persecution in Russia, Rob hung the Canadian flag in his office window in protest, but insisted that he was merely “supporting our athletes.” In a YouTube video about this last controversy, Rob said, “I am not homophobic—I will go to anyone’s house, anyone’s place to help them out.” In an interview with CNN at the height of the crack scandal, Doug insisted, “Everyone keeps saying Rob’s a conservative. He’s a huge, massive social liberal. He loves Obama. The headline of the papers when he won? ‘The White Obama.’” Their idea of a “social liberal” may sound more like a “social libertarian” to you. Rob’s words could also be interpreted by his supporters as: “No special treatment.”

Rob’s plausible deniability more or less broke down during his last year in office. “I’m not going to go to Pride parade. I’ve never gone to a Pride parade. So I’m not going to change the way I am,” he flatly stated in 2014. This happened to be the year that Toronto hosted WorldPride, but at the first council meeting after the events, Rob refused to stand and applaud for staff that participated. More troubling than his actions were what they inspired in his supporters: Kristyn Wong-Tam, the only openly gay member of Toronto’s city council at present, reported receiving homophobic hate mail from “Ford Nation” supporters. In summer 2014, Ford Fest (the Ford family’s annual community barbecue) became the site of an altercation between gay activists and Ford Nationals (“Numerous people said he was looking for trouble,” said Doug Ford of a gay protester).

For the Fords and their supporters, gay rights were “special interests” and the territory of “downtown elites.” Such wedge politics were the bread and butter of Rob Ford for his entire political career. Before becoming mayor, he served for a decade as a city councilor from Etobicoke, one of the suburbs amalgamated into Toronto in 1998. Residents across the region overwhelmingly voted against amalgamation in a 1997 plebiscite, but Ontario’s then-Conservative government implemented it anyway, and the decision created a sprawling city with deep cultural and geographic divides. The decision remains controversial to this day. Rob Ford’s 2010 campaign harnessed this sense of alienation through a couple of simple slogans (“Stop the gravy train,” “Respect for taxpayers”), uniting “Ford Nation”—an impressive suburban coalition that crossed race and class.

Through it all, the Fords were savvy media players, waging a four-year war of words with the liberal daily Toronto Star and hosting a weekly talk-radio show on the center-right Newstalk 1010. The Ford era also coincided with the emergence of new, far-right media venues. Canada’s equivalent to the Daily Mail, The Toronto Sun, was a regular source of Ford support, and from 2011 to 2015 lent its name to the Sun News Network, a failed attempt at a Canadian imitation of Fox News. From its ashes emerged the Rebel Media, an online news hub in the Breitbart mold, founded by Sun News hosts Ezra Levant and Brian Lilley. The Rebel’s popularity in Canada is modest, and thanks to such contributors as Faith Goldy and Gavin McInnes (both now departed), it has had a substantial international reach. Meanwhile, social media has given birth to Ontario Proud—ostensibly a “nonpartisan” group advocating “strategic voting” against the Liberal Party—whose 375,000-plus Facebook followers see a daily stream right-wing memes and clickbait.

The Rebel Media’s lineup of alt-right all-stars (which once posted a video by Gavin McInnes titled “10 Things I Hate About Jews”) has made it especially hard for conservative politicians to navigate, and after the violence in Charlottesville, many past guests found it prudent to disavow the website. This problem was not isolated: A 2017 investigation by Press Progress found that 25 percent of federal Conservative parliamentarians had appeared in the Rebel’s videos, including federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. One notable Rebel guest was Rob Ford, who, in a 2015 interview, spoke out against the sex-ed curriculum. At the time of the interview, Ford was back in his old council seat after dropping out of the mayor’s race due to a cancer diagnosis (he died in March 2016). Of the curriculum, he said, “It makes me sick to my stomach . . . because I have two kids. . . . My one in grade two and my other one in grade four should not be talking about what anal sex is, or what a blow job is. This is what they’re teaching these kids! I’m sorry, that makes me sick.”

Ontario’s “new” sex-ed curriculum was ready to go in 2010 just as Kathleen Wynne was shifted out of her role as the minister of education, but was shelved by then-premiere Dalton McGuinty after pressure from conservative religious groups. Four years later, Wynne had the majority government and the political capital to push it through, replacing a curriculum that was desperately out of date. “The [‘old’ curriculum] was released over fifteen years ago,” notes Carly Basian, a Toronto-based sexual health educator who teaches workshops through her My Sex Ed program. “There was nothing about sexual orientation; nothing about consent; nothing about online safety. A lot of the teachers I work with have already been talking about a lot of these subjects even prior to the release of the curriculum.”

But the controversy never quite died down. One of the curriculum’s most vocal critics is Charles McVety—president of the Canada Christian College and president of a social-conservative think tank, the Institute for Canadian Values. McVety was once a fringe figure (his show on the television station CTS was cancelled for suggesting, as the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council put it, that “homosexuals prey on children”), but he stood alongside Ford at Toronto’s Prayer Palace in February, where Ford pledged, “I can guarantee you we’ll make sure the church has a voice. All the time. All the time.” McVety promised his 3,854 Facebook followers that Ford “will repeal radical sex education.” He also predicted that “the leadership will be won by just a few thousand votes.” On the second point, he was correct: Ford narrowly defeated the moderate, establishment-backed candidate Christine Elliott on the third ballot.

What is in the Ontario sex-ed curriculum? Here are some highlights: in grade one, students learn the correct terminology for body parts; in grade three, about healthy relationships and how visible differences (e.g., skin, hair and eye color, clothing, physical ability) and invisible differences (e.g., learning abilities, cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, different family types such as one-parent, two-parent, two-mom or two-dad, grandparents, caregivers) make each person unique; in grade four; puberty and its physical changes; in grade five, the reproductive system and online safety; in grade six, consent; from grades seven to nine, sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancy, contraception, and bullying/harassment (including sexting). And in grade eight, there is discussion of the factors influencing gender identity and sexual orientation.

Nadine Thornhill, a Toronto-based sex educator, has found the most common misconception to be a flattening of all these grades. “The sex-ed component . . . starts in grade one, and [parents] might hear something like, ‘Oh, there’s mention of anal sex,’ and they conflate the two, and think, ‘Oh, well, they’re talking about anal sex in the first grade’—which is not at all the case. In first grade it’s very, very basic.” Oral and anal sex are mentioned in grades seven and eight, in the context of safe sex and sexually transmitted infections—or as the Campaign Life Coalition interprets it, “Under the pretext of encouraging abstinence from behaviors associated with high risk for STDs, the curriculum uses a sleight of hand to sneakily introduce to children the concepts of ‘anal intercourse’ and ‘oral-genital contact.’”

It is true that in grade three, the concept of gender diversity is introduced, leading Doug Ford to remark in one campaign stop, “They are trying to breathe this ideology down our backs . . . six different genders and all the nonsense. . . . We don’t need to learn about that.” Basian counters, “In grade three, teachers are supposed to help students understand the difference between visible differences and invisible differences. Within these invisible-differences categories, they bring up sexual orientation and gender identity as examples of something that may be different that you may not be able to necessarily see.

“A lot of people feel, ‘Oh, wow—grade three, talking about sexual orientation and gender identity? That’s really young, that’s really inappropriate!’ First of all, it’s not. From a developmental standpoint, research shows that children have an understanding of gender identity as early as age five . . . and furthermore, it’s an example of what individual difference looks like. It’s not just focusing solely on sexual orientation and gender identity, but the multitude of things that make us different—our likes, invisible disabilities like dyslexia, mental health, and other things.”

Many of the most controversial passages are optional “Teacher Prompts” to help guide educators in their class discussion. In particular, one in grade six has been a bone of contention: “Exploring one’s body by touching and masturbating is something that many people do and find pleasurable. It is common and is not harmful and is one way of learning about your body.” Does this voluntary discussion topic promote masturbation, as some critics have argued? “The specific expectation in grade six is to help students have a strong understanding of healthy relationships and building a foundation for healthy relationships,” says Basian. “[It leads to] this whole idea that having an understanding of your body will help you communicate in the future what your needs are to your partners for healthy relationships. We’re not teaching how to masturbate . . . but it’s just one way of approaching the subject.”

Thornhill notes that there may still be room for improvement in the teacher prompts: “I have questions about what sort of training are teachers receiving, and how well prepared are they to talk about these issues in class. What is the protocol if a question comes up that is extremely sensitive or personal?” However, she adds, “What people don’t always understand is that the teacher prompts are really there as examples. When they were developing this curriculum, teachers had questions about, ‘How do we bring up these topics? What do we say? What are appropriate ways of discussing these subjects for kids of different ages and development levels?’ The prompts are there as examples.”

“At the end of the day, the curriculum is very holistic,” says Basian. “It’s touching on many different, important parts of human development and sexual health; and it’s aligned with our human rights, our code of conduct, our diversity, equality and inclusion. It’s totally in alignment with our Canadian laws and values.”

June’s Conservative victory has been a long time coming. From 2003 to 2014, the Ontario Liberals weathered serious corruption scandals to win four consecutive elections. In 2014, Conservative leader Tim Hudak blew his party’s frontrunner status with a pledge to eliminate 100,000 public-sector jobs. In 2011, Hudak overemphasized sex education with a campaign that was widely regarded as homophobic. It would not be unfair to say that Ontario has a conservative streak (the Progressive Conservative party led parliament uninterrupted from 1943 to 1985, and the Liberals have more or less adopted its former big-tent approach), but in recent years, the Progressive Conservatives have struggled to translate ideas that are popular with the base into broadly appealing campaigns.

This year, Doug Ford solved the problem by emphasizing vague economic populism (“Life in this province is unaffordable—it’s becoming impossible for families to keep the lights on”) while never releasing a fully costed platform. He talked to the media as little as possible and watched while the plummeting Liberals blunted the second-place NDP. The Conservatives smartly pushed sex ed into the background during the general campaign, and cannily maneuvered flare-ups over its more socially conservative parliamentary candidates. In a postelection scrum with reporters, Ford confirmed that his party would be “repealing” the sex-ed curriculum but has yet to confirm a timeline. Charles McVety wrote on Facebook, “Praise God who heard our prayers and delivered victory,” and the Campaign Life Coalition celebrated the “end of Wynne’s reign of terror.”

Ford was sworn in as premiere on June 29, and wasted little time. On July 11, Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced that when students go back to school in September, they will be taught the 1998 curriculum—the one that predates social media and same-sex marriage. The government says that it will soon begin discussing a revamp of the curriculum, which it promises will be in collaboration with parents.

If Canada is indeed “famously obliging” (as Adam Gopnik puts it in the New Yorker), it’s also a country that can allow for a monstrous residential school system that forcibly separated indigenous children from their families—a so-called civilizing mission that inflicted generations of emotional and sexual abuse (the last residential school was only closed in 1996). In 2014, John Tory—soon-to-be mayor of Toronto—was asked if white privilege exists, and he responded, “White privilege? No, I think—no, I don’t know that it does. I mean, I think there are people who are left behind, and I think what they need is a hand up from people of all different skin colors and religions and backgrounds.” Less than a week after Gopnik’s ode to Trudeau’s refusal to accept bullies, the prime minister told the Canadian parliament he would not “play politics” by commenting on the United States’ family-separation policy, only denouncing it after days of intense pressure. Last week, Ford’s government announced that Ontario would no longer financially assist the federal government in resettling asylum seekers Doug Ford’s tough-guy affect is in stark contrast to Trudeau’s politeness, and it can feel like cognitive dissonance knowing the same country could elect both. But just as some centrists can overlook Trudeau’s arms trading with Sauda Arabia and focus on his social-justice rhetoric, so too can others overlook Ford’s ties to Charles McVety because someone needs to “shake things up.”

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