Head of sex education group says New Brunswick premier misrepresented sexual health presentation

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The slide that angered New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is the first of more than 100 in a presentation given to high school students across the country about healthy relationships, sexual health and sexually transmitted infections.Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

The sexual education slide that angered New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is the first of more than 100 in a presentation about healthy relationships and sexual health that is given to high school students across the country, reporters learned Friday.

Teresa Norris, president of the Montreal-based organization HPV Global Action, walked media through the presentation in an effort to provide context for the single opening slide that Higgs shared on social media last week and deemed “clearly inappropriate.”

The screenshot of the slide features questions such as, “Do girls masturbate?” and “Is it good or bad to do anal?”

Norris explained that the questions are intended to be attention-grabbing, but also to show teens that such questions are normal, and that her presentation will give them the information they need to find answers. She said teenagers are asking these questions, whether parents and educators know it or not.

“And where HPV Global is preoccupied is ensuring that when they look for that answer, we’re giving them a proper, age-appropriate, evidence-based answer and not … misinformation like they’re going to find online,” Norris said in an interview.

Higgs shared a screenshot of the slide last week on X, formerly Twitter, writing that HPV Global would not be allowed to present at schools in the province, “effective immediately.”

He also claimed the material is not part of the provincial curriculum. However, a government website shows puberty, gender identity, sexual orientation and healthy romantic and sexual relationships are all discussed in a high school course on individual and family wellness. Higgs later admitted that he had not seen the presentation in its entirety.

On Friday, Norris explained that the slide sets the stage for her presentation, called Healthy Relationships 101, and is not an outline of what will be discussed. The next slides tell her own story of losing her best friend to cervical cancer, a story she uses to connect with her audience and to illustrate that some of what they are about to learn about sexual health could save a life.

The presentation then discusses healthy and unhealthy friendships and relationship behaviour, sexuality and puberty, consent, abstinence and sexually transmitted infections. It explains that it’s OK for teens to feel uncomfortable about sex, or to be asking questions about it and about their own sexual identities. It discusses what it means to be sexually active, which sexually transmitted infections can be cured and which cannot, and how they are acquired and prevented.

Anal sex is only discussed in this context, since it is a form of sex and it comes with risks, just like the others, Norris said.

All of these issues tie into HPV, which is a sexually transmitted condition that can cause a host of cancers, including cervical cancer. She encourages students to be vaccinated against the virus, and to be aware that symptoms can emerge years after they are first infected.

Norris also urges students to remind their mothers to be screened regularly for HPV. In more than two decades of delivering variations of the presentation in schools across the country, 12 teenagers have come back to her to say their mothers got tested at their insistence and discovered a health issue, she said.

Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for Higgs, said Norris offered to give a condensed version of her presentation to government officials, but they refused. He said he instead asked for her slides, which she refused. He said, however, that he will accept Norris’s offer to deliver the entire presentation.

@Outhouse said the main issue is that parents were not given any notification about the presentation, nor an opportunity to weigh in on its content. He acknowledged that may be an issue with the school or the education department, rather than with Norris’s group, and he said the government was still looking into what happened.

Higgs’ post on social media linked to a survey that showed the screenshot of the presentation’s opening slide and asked how concerned respondents were that “this content was shared with high school students without the awareness of their parents.”

Outhouse said more than 3,200 people have responded and 82 per cent said they were very concerned.

Norris said that focusing on a single slide without the context of her entire presentation misses the point.

“I have never encountered such a gross misrepresentation of my work in my entire career,” she said about Higgs’ response.

She fears his vow to ban her group from presenting in the province will have a chilling effect on educators in New Brunswick and across the country.

“We should be putting teens core and centre to the discussion that we’re having right now,” she said. “What happens when we don’t allow a space for teens to have questions and concerns?”

Norris said she works with education and public health officials in each region to ensure her talks are in line with the curriculum and resources available to the students she will speak to. Education officials – who could be teachers, principals or school board representatives – sign a consent form allowing HPV Global to present, and they sign after they have read a detailed outline of the presentation, she said.

“There was no surprise” in New Brunswick, she said, adding that her group has been presenting in the province’s schools for years.

Norris said she hopes she can sit down with the province’s education officials and talk through the issue.

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