At first glance, Tessa Hill and Lia Valente might seem like your average 13-year-olds. Oh, except that the Doc Martin-wearing duo (Tessa rocks pink boots, Lia's sporting white) started a petition for a school project that got more than 40,000 signatures. And it led to a meeting with Ontario's premier. And they succeeded in getting the issue of consent included in the new sex-ed curriculum. And that new curriculum sparked a wave of protests from some parents.
"I don't think parents should use their children as political pawns," says Tessa in the wake of the recent "parent strike" that saw Ontario sex-ed opponents keep nearly 35,000 Toronto-area children out of school.
It followed last month's angry demonstration at Queen's Park by sign-wielding parents. In a speech blasting the new curriculum, Tory MPP Jack MacLaren told protesting parents: "And if you had have been asked, what would you have said? No!"
The irony of his statement about a curriculum that includes teaching consent is not lost on the girls.
"All the opposition is coming from an uninformed perspective," Lia says.
"Maybe they didn't have open conversations about sex in their homes or in school when they were younger so it seems kind of scary that their kids are going to be talking about it. But in reality these conversations are really healthy and everything in there is age-appropriate."
"It's just the basic rules of consent," she adds. "I don't really get why they could be opposed to that."
Many of the signs at the protests focused on the age of children — under the new curriculum, Grade 3 students would learn about sexual orientation and Grade 4 students would learn about puberty. Grade 4 is a recent memory for Lia and Tessa, who are in Grade 8 at City View, a public alternative school in Toronto's west end focused on social justice.
That's where the girls founded We Give Consent, their ultimately successful campaign to get consent included in the sex-ed update that is replacing the current 18-year-old curriculum when school starts next September.
They say they're frustrated by how much of the backlash to the new curriculum has been based on myths and lies. Christian evangelist Charles McVety stirred up fears once again in February by claiming "the only conclusion you can come to is that they are...planning to introduce sexual consent to six-year-olds. That is intolerable for parents."
McVety's Institute for Canadian Values organization successfully pressured former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty to back down from reforming the sex ed curriculum in 2010.
"In Grade 1 it's teaching the base issues of consent but not in terms of sexual activity," Tessa explains. "So if you're going to hug someone you should make sure they're okay with that, and pay attention to people's body language and emotions.
"It's about teaching empathy in general and that transfers later to talk about consent in terms of sexual activity and romantic relationships."
We Give Consent initially began as a Change.org petition aimed at the Ministry of Education. It was the call-to-action for a school project they began in September, an unintentionally timely doc on rape culture that wound up dovetailing with the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby revelations last fall. The documentary will premiere at Toronto's Bell Lightbox Theatre on June 8.
"We knew we wanted to do the project on something surrounding feminism because that's something we're both really passionate about and we wanted to do something that really affects us as young people and as women," says Tessa.
During a conversation about the changing curriculum in the school's Queer-Straight Alliance club, a teacher mentioned that the update still didn't include anything about consent. The girls saw how the curriculum connected to their project — they say establishing a consent culture is the best way to stop rape culture.
The idea of teaching consent as part of a sex-ed curriculum is still a relatively radical one. Some Canadian provinces touch on the concept, but stop short of directing teachers to use the term, reports Today's Parent. There have also been calls to introduce consent in U.S. classrooms. As American sex-ed proponent Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes put it, "We have young people not knowing what consent is and isn't."
And it's not just young people. According to a recent survey by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, "only one in three Canadians know what sexual consent means." But nine out of 10 said that sexual activity should be consensual, which the group says is a clear sign that Canadians need more education on the meaning of consent.
'Now We Have Connections'
In an age of sexting and cyberbullying, the girls wanted to use social media to get their message out. Lia says they wanted to "turn this thing that's sometimes used as a weapon into something good where change is created."
Their petition on consent subsequently went viral and landed them on CBC Radio's Metro Morning in Toronto — and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was listening.
"She was on the same page as us with consent," recalls Lia of their January visit to Queen's Park, where they were also invited to be part of the premier's Youth Advisory Council. "[She's] just in general a really cool person. It was great meeting her, it was a great opportunity."
"Now we have connections," laughs Tessa.
On Feb. 7, the girls' petition hit its target of 40,000 signatures but their campaign wasn't over.
"We hope to inspire youth in other parts of our country and even the world to build similar campaigns," they wrote. "To those who say youth can't make a difference and don't care about social justice, we're proud to say we've proved them wrong! Thank you!"
Then last month protests erupted at Queen's Park. That's why they created the petition, they say — to show how many people support the changes, despite loud opposition from religious groups and some conservative parents.
Now that the curriculum is released, they're very happy with the update. The province's education minister Liz Sandals says it makes Ontario a "leader" in teaching consent.
Tessa and Lia also like how it addresses other issues like gender expression and puberty in Grades 3 and 4.
"That's really helpful, otherwise you end up learning about puberty in grade six and you've already gotten your period. Also just generally making it a little more sex-positive rather than just teaching abstinence and fear."
The girls say they have been supported by the province and their own school board. However the pair believe the government could have done more to inform parents about the curriculum changes, and help them better understand it. They would have liked to see an info sheet about the consent changes send home with every single student.
"When you don't understand something, a lot of the time you tend to oppose it," says Tessa.
"It's great that [the government has] been saying they're standing their ground on this, but by saying that and not taking direct action to educate those parents who are opposed to it, it just means that some parents will end up pulling their children out of health class. It's their option but it's not the best thing for our goal of creating a consent culture."
They wonder if many parents who oppose the changes realize consent isn't necessarily about about teaching kids how to say yes — it's also about teaching them they have the option to say no.
"There's this idea that consent means 'no means no,' but it’s more than that," Lia explains.
"Yes means yes and anything less is not consent. Silence is not consent and even if the person does verbally say yes but they're intoxicated or high, then it's not consent. All these rules that should be taught in schools aren't necessarily known."
The girls say the genie is out of the bottle thanks to the Internet. Kids may be exposed to pornography, false information or sexist attitudes online, and schools can be a space for kids to get information about healthy relationships and learn they are in charge of their own bodies.
"It's going to hopefully create a culture where we can openly talk about sex because right now sex is taboo, sex is dark, sex is like a whispered secret. People don't like to admit that sex is about pleasure and desire, not just reproductive stuff, and that teenagers are having sex as young as middle school," Tessa says.
"It is a thing that we can't stop, but we can educate."
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