Time to teach about gender-based violence in Ontario schools

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A toolkit for change

On a freezing cold February morning in 2023, the day after a brutal ice storm that knocked out power for parts of the City of Windsor and the surrounding Essex County only the night before, I drove my hatchback along the Detroit River to the University of Windsor to co-facilitate a professional development workshop on teaching about gender-based violence (GBV). Dr. Catherine Vanner—Assistant Professor at the University of Windsor in the Faculty of Education—and her team(1) including myself, had been planning this event since September with hopes of delivering useful resources and strategies for teaching about gender-based violence topics in the secondary classroom. We further wanted to create a space for Grade 8–12 educators from across Windsor–Essex public and Catholic school boards to share their knowledge and experiences. The night before the workshop, as freezing rain coated trees, power lines, and streets in a thick layer of ice, the team sent emails back and forth, uncertain whether we would still be able to host our invitees given the unsafe conditions outside.

At the time, I was in my second year of the Bachelor of Education program at the university as a mature student and a research assistant on the team. Having previously completed my master’s degree in Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies at York University, issues of social justice and gender equity were and continue to be foundational to shaping my values as an educator. Although gender-based violence in its many forms—whether physical or verbal abuse, femicide, sexual violence, or other forms of violence grounded in misogyny, transphobia or homophobia—often has devastating impacts on many students and their families and communities, these topics are often conspicuously absent from classroom teaching. This gap can be in part attributed to the scant resources that exist to support educators in addressing these issues in their lesson plans and with their students. Our team aimed to address this resource gap through the development of a teaching toolkit and professional development workshop on teaching about gender-based violence. I wrote this article with Drs. Vanner and Almanssori to describe our experience and to highlight the resulting teacher resources.

Despite the unexpected storm, we were relieved that the workshop was able to go ahead as planned and was a resounding success. The two-day event was attended by an inspiring group of passionate educators, health care providers, and gender-based violence experts from Windsor–Essex County and beyond who engaged with the prospect of teaching about gender-based violence with curiosity and offered us important feedback on the Teaching About Gender Violence Toolkit(2) teacher resource that was the centerpiece of our team’s work. At the end of the workshop, we had learned two valuable lessons: firstly, Ontario educators and education workers are eager for the opportunity to learn, share, and access resources on teaching about gender-based violence, and secondly, never plan an in-person event in Canada before May!

Our team’s work on teaching about gender-based violence began in 2018 with a Canada­-wide research project called Time to Teach About Gender-Based Violence in Canada. Dr. Vanner, later joined by Dr. Salsabel Almanssori, analyzed the Ontario secondary school curriculum and interviewed educators from five Canadian provinces including Ontario who were already incorporating content about GBV into their teaching. Students between the ages of 11–17 were also consulted as part of this project. The findings of this research confirmed that, while gender-based violence was a prominent issue in the lives of Canadian students, their families, and communities, these topics were underrepresented or simply not present in what students are most often being taught in schools (Vanner, 2022). Post-secondary teachers were more comfortable leading classroom discussions about relationships and consent than about gender-based violence (Almanssori, in press), despite the fact that the topics are interrelated.

Gender-based violence can impact children and youth long before they complete high school but education about it is often lacking, or at least postponed to the post-secondary level. Although a variety of important programming exists to subvert gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses (e.g., Senn et al., 2015), for many students, this information is being delivered too late (Friesen & Hayes, 2021). More can and should be done to educate students and communities in a wide range of social institutions and settings (Bonar et al., 2020). Our team of educators strongly believes that these conversations must begin in middle and secondary school classrooms.

Discussions about gender-based violence are appearing nationally and internationally on both social and political stages. For example, the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people has been pushed to the forefront of Canadian consciousness through the hard work and determination of Indigenous communities and activists. On October 4, 2023, thanks to these activists’ tireless advocacy, the Canadian and Manitoban governments finally committed to searching the Winnipeg landfill for the remains of Marcedes Myran and Morgan Harris, two First Nations women whose bodies were suspected to have been left there after their murders (Buffie, 2023). But few Canadians realize that rates of femicides have increased in recent years. Between 2021–2022 in Ontario alone, there were 52 femicides in 52 weeks, with victims’ ages ranging between 8 and 88 years old (OAITH, 2023). Zooming out to Canada as a whole, this number increases exponentially, with 184 women and girls killed by acts of violence in 2022. These numbers are up from 173 femicides recorded in 2021, 160 in 2020, and 148 in 2019 (Canadian Femicide
Observatory for Justice and Accountability, 2022). Over the same period, women’s and children’s shelters have seen an unprecedented demand for services that they often lack the space or resources to meet (Maru, 2023).

At the same time, transgender and gender-diverse children, youth, and the 2SLGBTQI+ community are also experiencing a rise in gender­-based violence. Two-Spirit, transgender, non-binary, and otherwise gender non-conforming people have experienced tidal waves of negative attention in the media and online, where transphobia has been allowed to proliferate. The rights of these children and youth have become a flashpoint for homegrown hate-groups as well as in political arenas in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. This has resulted in a series of ongoing anti-trans ‘protests,’ as well as anti-trans and anti-gay legislation passed or in development in various Canadian provinces, whose targets are often schools and educators (Global News, 2023; Omstead, 2019; Stechyson, 2023). The rise of transphobic rhetoric has led to the proliferation of hate movements and increased gender-based violence toward trans communities and their allies.

A grim consequence of escalating transphobia was perpetrated in June 2023 (Pride month), when a man walked into a gender studies class at the University of Waterloo and stabbed the professor and two students. According to Waterloo Regional Police Service, this attack was targeted and related to gender expression and gender identity (Chaarani, 2023). Meanwhile, many school boards in Ontario and across the country are seeing expressions of violence motivated by transphobia, Pride flags and other symbols defaced, and bullying and aggression in the classroom. The outcome is that our 2SLGBTQI+ students are feeling less safe in their schools and communities (Healey, 2023).

Gender-based violence is an intersectional issue that impacts our students in a variety of ways. These topics are politically charged (Clarke-Vivier & Stearns, 2019), which makes them increasingly challenging for teachers to address. The question is not whether conversations about gender-based violence should be incorporated into our classrooms and lessons, but how they should be taught. While many educators may be interested in teaching about topics of gender-based violence (Vanner, Holloway & Almanssori, 2022), the currently available resources, support, and training are arguably incomplete and do not offer teachers the necessary knowledge, confidence, and skills required to create and facilitate these lessons (Almanssori, 2022a). Of resources provided to Ontario teachers, there is an emphasis on the legal and professional obligations, less focus on pedagogy. For instance, the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) requires all licensed teachers to take the “Sexual Abuse Prevention Program,” a short online module that covers duty to report and other professional obligations and standards (Almanssori, 2022a, 2022b). While this training is essential to support our students, it falls far short of providing teachers with the tools they need to teach their students about these topics. The educators interviewed as a part of the Time to Teach project expressed that without adequate teaching resources to draw on, they were less likely to teach about gender-based violence (Vanner, Holloway & Almanssori, 2022). Our toolkit and professional development workshop are designed to provide the pedagogical support teachers said they were lacking.

The teaching toolkit

The Teaching About Gender-Based Violence Toolkit (2023) was developed alongside our workshop to address the resource gap. Written by Dr. Almanssori, Alexandra Lai, and myself (Keith Trent-Rennick), and supervised and edited by Dr. Vanner, the free toolkit contains resources to equip educators with the support and knowledge they need to teach about gender-based violence topics in Grade 8–12 Ontario classrooms. The toolkit contains lesson plans with specific entry points to the Ontario curriculum, but they can be easily modified for other education contexts. It also contains practical teaching resources, such as hand-outs and slide decks, and general guidance notes on these topics such as how to employ a trauma-informed educational approach, terminology, and language, creating a classroom agreement for conversations about challenging or sensitive topics, and how to report violence.

Our lesson plans were created collabora­tively to address the wide scope of gender-based violence; from how to identify and stop individual incidents of violence to understanding the historical, social, and political contexts for gender-based violence in Canada. Lesson plans address topics of cisnormativity and heteronormativity; gender policing; healthy relationships; consent; missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people; intimate partner violence; human trafficking; and sexual assault. They are designed to be easy to use, interactive, and accessible to teachers and students. The lessons include activities, art making, games, and engaging and accessible texts such as comics and online videos and seek to empower teachers to talk about gender-based violence with their students.

The toolkit was piloted at the workshop so that it could be further refined following the input of practising educators. The workshop also involved other opportunities for our guests to build their knowledge base by listening to inspired speakers including Dr. Jennifer Brant, Assistant Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Alex Reid, former Executive Director of Trans Wellness Ontario, and current teachers already teaching about gender-based violence in secondary schools: Samira Chawki, Ben Sichel, and Shannon Mills. Importantly, it was also a space for teachers to share their own knowledge and experiences. We are grateful for the feedback that fed into the refinement of the toolkit, now available for download on our website GBVTeaching.com. We are confident that it will be a helpful teaching tool and resource for educators in any classroom context.


The work of our team and the amazing educators we met through this project feels even more pressing when confronted by the spread of gender-based violence in Ontario. Understanding the many-sided and intersectional issues underneath manifestations of gender-based violence will help students better grasp its social implications in Canada and internationally, and help them to identify, stop, and prevent it. That is why it has been our mission to create these educational resources and professional development opportunities. Although some may argue that conversations about gender-based violence are inappropriate for a middle school or high school classroom, or that students are not ready to learn about these topics, the reality is that gendered violence impacts every student, either directly, through family, friends, and community, or in a broader sociopolitical context. Our readiness to have those conversations will impact the lives of those students, so we had best be prepared to have them.

1. Our team included Dr. Salsabel Almanssori (Research Associate and Postdoctoral Fellow), Alexandra Lai and Keith Trent-Rennick (myself) (Research Assistants and Bachelor of Education students), Dr. Catherine Vanner (Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations), Valerie Alexander (Bachelor of Forensic Science student), and Dr. Charlene Senn (Canada Research Chair in Sexual Violence and Professor in the Applied Social Psychology Graduate Program). We were all affiliated with the University of Windsor at the time of the workshop and toolkit development.
2. The toolkit can be accessed at the Gender-Based Violence teaching website here: https://www.gbvteaching.com/about-6

1. Almanssori, S. (in press). Ontario secondary teacher comfort with sexual violence prevention education. McGill Journal of Education.
2. Almanssori, S. (2022a). A feminist inquiry into Canadian pre-service teacher narratives on sex education and sexual violence prevention. Gender and Education, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2022.2101195
3. Almanssori, S. (2022b). Sexual violence prevention is missing in teacher education: Perspectives of teacher candidates on prevention education. Sex Education, 23(6), 662–676. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681811.2022.2108391
4. Almanssori, S., Trent-Rennick, K., Lai, A., & Vanner, C. (2023). Teaching about gender-based violence toolkit. Education for Gender Justice Lab, University of Windsor.
5. Bonar, E. E., DeGue, S., Abbey, A., Coker, A. L., Lindquist, C. H., McCauley, H. L., Miller, E., Senn, C. Y., Thompson, M. P., Ngo, Q. M., Cunningham, R. M., & Walton, M. A. (2020). 6. Prevention of sexual violence among college students: Current challenges and Future Directions. Journal of American College Health, 70(2), 575–588. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2020.1757681
7. Buffie, N. (2023, August 9). Manitoba NDP promises landfill search if elected. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/9885590/manitoba-ndp-landfill-search-promise/
8. Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. (2022). Call it Femicide: Understanding sex/gender-related killings of women and girls in Canada, 2018–2022. https://femicideincanada.ca/callitfemicide2018-2022.pdf
9. Chaarani, J. (2023, July 5). University of Waterloo gender studies course continues a week after stabbing. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/university-of-waterloo-vivek-goel-gender-course-continues-1.6897673
10. Clarke-Vivier, S., & Stearns, C. (2015). Deconstructing the neoliberal narrative: A story of possibility for democratic work in early childhood education. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 23(4), 639–645. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681366.2015.1035901
11. Friesen, J., & Hayes, M. (2021, September 13). Western University reels as student dies from assault; social media sparks investigation into alleged sexual violence. Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-western-university-reels-as-student-dies-from-assault-social-media/
12. Gender-Based Violence Teaching Network. (n.d.). https://www.gbvteaching.com/
13. Global News Staff. (2023, October 16). Human Rights Commissioner resigns over Saskatchewan pronoun bill. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/10028850/human-rights-commissioner-resigns-over-saskatchewan-pronoun-bill/
14. Healey, Marshall. (2023, June 14). London, Ont. high school students stand in solidarity after pride flag torn down. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/9769014/london-ont-high-school-students-stand-in-solidarity-after-pride-flag-tore-down/#:~:text=After%20a%20Pride%20flag%20was,opportunity%20for%20the%20student%20body.
15. Maru, S. (2023, June 7). Alleged murder of Windsor woman marks region’s 4th case of femicide in last two years, says advocacy group. CTV News Windsor. https://windsor.ctvnews.ca/alleged-murder-of-windsor-woman-marks-region-s-4th-case-of-femicide-in-last-two-years-says-advocacy-group-1.6431780
16. Omstead, Jordan. (2019, November 10). Advocates concerned Alberta Conscience Rights Bill could put trans people at risk. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/advocates-say-conscience-rights-bill-207 1.5354803#:~:text=Edmonton-,Advocates%20concerned%20Alberta%20conscience%20rights%20bill%20could%20put%20trans%20people,legalize%20discrimination%20against%20transgender%20people
17. Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses. (2023). More than a number: 52 femicides in 52 weeks in one province. https://www.oaith.ca/assets/library/MoreThanANumber.pdf
18. Senn, C., Eliasziw, M., Barata, P. C., Thurston, W. E., Newby-Clark, I. R., Radtke, H. L., & Hobden, K. L. (2015). Efficacy of a sexual assault resistance program for university women. The New England Journal of Medicine, 372 (24): 2326–2335. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsa1411131
19. Stechyson, Natalie. (2023, June 28). As New Brunswick changes its LGBTQ policy in schools, advocates worry it’s just the beginning. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick-trans-lgbtq-higgs-1.6889957
20. Vanner, C. (2022). Education about gender-based violence: Opportunities and obstacles in the Ontario secondary school. Gender and Education, 34(2): 145-150. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2021.1884193
21. Vanner, C., Holloway & Almanssori, S. (2022). Teaching and learning with power and privilege: Student and teacher identity in education about gender-based violence. Teaching and Teacher Education, 116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2022.103755

About Keith Trent-Rennick, Dr. Catherine Vanner, and Dr. Salsabel Almanssori
Keith Trent-Rennick (he/him) Occasional Teacher, District 9, Greater Essex; Dr. Catherine Vanner (she/her) Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Windsor; Dr. Salsabel Almanssori (she/her) Adjunct Professor & SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow

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