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Saskatchewan sexual assault organizations look to libraries months after school ban

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Saskatoon mother Tamara Hinz says her two kids have watched the same puppet show that thousands of other Saskatchewan children have seen over the last 17 years.

The "I'm the Boss of Me" presentation for those aged eight to 11 tells the story of three friends, two of whom have been sexually abused. It teaches students why sexual abuse is wrong and that they can go to a trusted adult if hurt.

But a provincial ban meant Hinz's son couldn't see the 20-minute puppet show at school, even though her daughter saw it in class two years ago.

Instead, the family had to drive to a public library across the city to watch it.

"I felt like it was handled quite well when it was done through the schools. Information was sent home ahead of time, we knew that this was coming, there were invitations to ask questions if people had concerns ahead of time," Hinz said in a recent interview.

"(By making families drive to the library), I feel it's putting up unnecessary hoops and barriers to some really critical information that's designed to prevent the sexual abuse of children."

The puppet show, presented by the Saskatoon Sexual Assault and Information Centre, has been part of schools in the city and surrounding area since 2007.

The organization says it has reached 41,000 kids since then.

Last year, the Saskatchewan Party government barred third-party organizations from presenting sexual education in schools in a move that's intended to have parents more involved in classrooms.

The result is that organizations that deal with sexual assault must pivot on how they spread the word and assist teachers.

Many are now going to libraries but admit the result is they are reaching fewer children.

In North Battleford, the executive director of the Battlefords and Area Sexual Assault Centre said she, too, has turned to partnering with the library.

"Unfortunately, the reality is those parents who are bringing their kids are parents who support our organization and believe in this information," said Amber Stewart.

"The kids who really need it, those parents aren't bringing those kids."

Since the ban, she said, more teachers have reached out asking her to do one-on-one counselling with students.

"We only have one counsellor, so we don't have the capacity. We then had to implement a wait-list because of the demand," she said.

Critics of the ban have noted Saskatchewan has the highest rate of interpersonal violence and sexual assault.

The province has the second-highest adolescent pregnancy rate and sees more cases of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections when compared to the rest of Canada.

Lisa Miller, executive director at the Regina Sexual Assault Centre, said it's critical youth learn about abuse so they can identify unsafe behaviour and know where to go for help.

She said some teachers have found it challenging to teach the subject, as some of them may have personal histories with sexual abuse.

"I don't know how I can stress enough to people and to the government that it's silly to say that children are going to receive this information at home," she said.

"Children who are being abused are not receiving abuse prevention education at home."

A Saskatchewan government spokesperson said in a statement Friday the directive is temporary and continues to be reviewed.

Planned Parenthood was the first organization Saskatchewan had suspended after an instructor inadvertently mixed a card set with other pamphlets and left the set on a side table during a Grade 9 sexual health class. The card set included graphic, sexual words beginning with each letter of the alphabet.

All other outside organizations that teach sexual health were banned months later.

Julian Wotherspoon, executive director at Planned Parenthood Regina, said she has continued to offer programming and is looking for ways to assist teachers.

"We've really focused on how we can build educators' comfort with the subject matter, how we can build their facilitation skills to address tough subjects or silly questions so they don't feel like they need to bring in a third party," she said.

Saskatchewan has required schools to inform parents about sexual education and provide them with an opportunity to opt their children out of lessons.

It also introduced measures preventing children under 16 from changing their names or pronouns at school without parental consent, which later became law after the government invoked the notwithstanding clause.

Wotherspoon said changes to such policies speak to a larger movement that wants to limit sexual health education.

"I don't want people advocating for better sexual education to lose sight of the fact it's not just about sex ed and never has been," she said.

"There's a move to remove the autonomy of youth and their access to health information that is accurate and evidence-based."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2024.

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