LESSONS IN SURVIVAL
FROM FEBRUARY/MARCH 2019 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Defunding education means scarcity at a cost: a cohort that might never be able to dig itself out of student-loan debt or access tools to overcome barriers. But amid the tumult, thoughtful dissent has arisen from stakeholders across the West End – including teachers, tutors, mentors, student activists and mobilized parents. We spoke to a range of them for this story and found, at the core of their efforts, a multi-generational fight to ensure education remains a right for everyone.
Muneeb Irshad, 15
Documentary filmmaker, student at Bloor Collegiate Institute
“For our civics class, our culminating assignment was to pick an issue in Toronto and develop a social action plan toward it. The other students were doing powerpoint presentations but since we’re into film, I thought we could make an awareness video about Doug Ford’s cuts to the EPO program that affect at-risk youth. People feel that youth are powerless. But if [citizens] see a voice coming for the youth, by the youth, then it will have a bigger impact – especially through video and pictures. If there is no reaction from the start, then it’s like we’re digging our own grave. Let’s say 20 years down the road, there are more cuts to education. We’re paving the way for those if we show him that it doesn’t affect us.”
Coordinator of the da Vinci Alternative Elementary school snack program, member of the GTA Parent Council
“Many schools in Toronto have a snack program. At most public schools there’s a need. [The da Vinci] snack program is a volunteer, parent-run program. We feed almost 400 kids a day and it has to be healthy snacks, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. This snack program has two funding bodies: one is the City of Toronto, and one is the provincial government, and the rest comes from fundraising and parent contributions. You do have to apply and show need. If there isn’t support, there will be so much less that you can do. I feel like the government is saying, ‘I’m going to take away any chance you have of a good start.’ It would be so incredible to ask the Ford government, ‘What do you consider education?’ I can just imagine that little by little it will get stripped away. School will become a really grey and malnourished place to be. I started [getting involved] because I love my son’s teacher. Kim Fry is part of the [Elementary Teachers of Toronto Political Action and Education Committee], and she’s been educating me. I’m really a political newbie and I don’t know much. It’s a bit embarrassing, but now’s the time.”
Chim Alao, 23
Outgoing University of Toronto student union vice-president (equity), activist
“My initial reaction to the Ford government’s cuts was one of disappointment, but not surprise. By scrapping the sexual education curriculum and cancelling the addition of Indigenous-focused content, the Ford government has already illustrated that they do not care about those who do not have the privilege to access education at its higher levels. My thoughts quickly turned toward my little sister, who is about to graduate Grade 12, and is starting to receive acceptances from universities she probably will not be able to afford to attend. OSAP grants were my sole source of funding throughout university, and with this disinvestment in education, many others in a similar situation to me won’t be able to consider university a viable option.”
Focus on Youth supervisor, administration and children’s coordinator for the Weston-Mount Dennis Boys and Girls Club
“I would describe Focus on Youth as a shadowing program – an experience program. We get a lot of students that don’t have work experience and Focus on Youth gives them that. [As camp leaders] some students knew that they wanted to work with children right off the bat, and others were doing it just for the work experience. But then they actually started enjoying working with the kids. At one point they wouldn’t take initiative to start an activity, and now they’re running activities on their own. It’s a good opportunity. They get [Boys and Girls Club] training, they get our orientation, we treat them like staff. With the cuts, they’re losing out on those experiences. At the end of the day, any employer students are applying to is looking for somebody that has professional experience. This is an opportunity to give them that.
A lot of our staff started as [student placements], then we took them on after they finished the program. Right now, we have three [program leaders who were once student placements in the program], and you can see that they’re stronger than when they started off. I can see their growth.”
Davida Fullerton, 20
Past Focus on Youth Program participant, Humber Social Service Worker program
“Honestly, [Focus on Youth] is the best job I’ve ever had. Being in the program [as a program leader of the Weston-Mount Dennis Boys and Girls Club] taught me that I wasn’t the kind of person to sit on the sidelines. It was just in me to take initiative. I tried to get to know the kids and they saw me as someone they could open up to. The program really meant a lot to me, and helped me pay for college. It was the most money I’ve ever made in a summer. I’m shocked that [the program] may not continue. It makes me a little angry because I feel like what Ford’s doing with Focus on Youth – and all the educational cuts – shows that there’s really no care for the youth of this generation. I feel like we’re so focused on the aging population that we’re forgetting about us. And the truth is that we’re the future. Who’s going to take care of my mom when she’s older? Obviously me. It’s not going to be the other way around.
I can’t help thinking that this is just going to turn around and bite them in the butt. There’s going to be a lot of repercussions – mental health issues, a lot of financial issues. There are going to be so many problems for us I don’t even know where to begin. I feel like we are the ones who have to fix it. When kids and youth begin to really break down all the policies and laws, and we start becoming politicians, they will be scared. We have a large voice and a large platform on social media. They should start supporting us right now, because the older we get, the more important we’re going to be. I can’t wait for that day to come.”
Heather Vickers, 42
Co-founder of the reformed Etobicoke Parent Network, formerly the Etobicoke Parents for Public Education
“The PRO grants [a section of EPO funding titled Parents Reaching Out, which seeks to involve more parents in student achievement] were withheld for several months in the fall. Normally schools would hear about approval for the funds they have diligently applied for a year prior, and not being able to move forward with those plans was scary. Some schools have things that were ready to go in September when the funds were supposed to come in. I think with so many schools raising their voices saying, ‘What is going on? We don’t like this,’ the government had to say something.
[The Etobicoke Parent Network] is very new, but this is something that’s been in the works. There used to be a group in Etobicoke called Etobicoke Parents for Public Education that formed in the early 2000s when the Harris government was making all kinds of cuts to the education system. Those same parents are looking at our time now thinking, ‘Is the same thing happening all over again?’ We have to come together again, and make sure our voices are heard and hopefully put a stop to it. We are a group of about 200 members so far. This number includes some of the original members from the 2000s. Although this group is primarily composed of parents in Etobicoke, from north to south, we’re not exclusionary. Anyone is welcome to join and support the cause. Chris Glover [MPP for Spadina-Fort York] has been adamant about connecting, and reaching out to parents and trying to bring forth resources — he was actually the one who helped me put together this reformation of the parent network. Our biggest goal right now is awareness, which we’re accomplishing through multiple media streams and good old word of mouth. The next step will be to get out a petition and do a letter-writing campaign. We want to help others see that these programs really do have an important part to play in all of our children’s lives, that there are noticeable gaps without them. We want to remind people that these [programs] need to be provided for, that parents shouldn’t have to ask, ‘Do we just pay for the programs that are now lacking?’ My biggest fear is that we will be raising a totally different society. My fear is that there will be big divisions of classes; of the students who were able to afford special programs on their own, and those who were not. And that’s not the way Ontario was built.”
Cody Caetano, 23
Master’s of Creative Writing student, Anishinaabe poet
“The cuts are a friendly reminder of our gold-plated, competence-based free-market model. Are we really in that much of a hurry to pay off the provincial debt? What about the financial aid and grant-based opportunities that helped me afford to go to school and live these last six years? I think about all the game-changing student journals and mentorship opportunities that led to my employment with Word On The Street last year and how those might disappear. These experiences encouraged the self-starter in me.
Some teachers in my earlier years could have really used Indigenous-focused educational training about the nation’s history. The reductions will lead to more cultural flattening — and ugly luck for kids who experience even a smidgen of precarious living.”