Why Ontario's high school student walkouts give me hope

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Erindale Secondary School students protest. (Photo: mississauga.com)

Bill 115, the Orwellian-named Putting Students First Act, was passed in the Ontairo legislature last week stripping tens of thousands of teachers and education workers of their right to collective bargaining.

You could hear the clucking of Premier Dalton McGuinty and Education Minister Loreal Broten as they patted themselves on the back saying they saved the opening of the school year for over 2 million elementary and high school students across Ontario.

Oh how they crowed, about how Bill 115 was necessary to reduce the deficit while still preserving their centerpiece initiative of all-day kindergarten. Never mind that in 2011 only one out of five kindergarten-aged kids were enrolled in an all-day program. The lack of a public daycare system in Ontario forces parents to choose between enrolling their kids and needing to pick them up in the middle of a workday.

Then when teachers started to exercise one of the few rights they have left, to no longer volunteer unpaid hours for school extra-curricular activities such as clubs and sports teams, something unexpected happened.

Students across the province got mad and took action, staging anti-government walkouts and protests that spread from remote locales such as Kawartha Lakes and the Northshore region in northern Ontario right across the province to Vaughn, Brampton, Woodbridge, Toronto, Owen Sound, Ottawa and Richmond Hill. Students have organized protests at no less than 28 Ontario schools, including one by elementary students at Ecole Macphail Memorial School in Flesherton, since the passing of Bill 115 and that number is growing daily.

What is remarkable about this unsanctioned and rebellious wave of protest is that the students' ire is aimed squarely at the government and not the teachers. Some of the protest signs carried by students read; "Putting Students Last Act"; "Students against Bill 115"; "Negotiate, don't legislate"; "Revoke Bill 115" and "If you can read this, thank a teacher!"

In a poll on the Toronto Star's website over 79 per cent of 6,240 respondents blamed the government for the cancellation of extra-curricular activities.

"We don't blame our teachers. It's the government. We are definitely not on the government's side," said Jordana Moss, who plays volleyball, badminton and football at Stephen Lewis Secondary School in Vaughn, in a Toronto Star article on Sept. 14.

A photo that Moss took and posted to Twitter of the announcement of the cancellation of sports at her school quickly spread, and by 11:30am an estimated 700 students were protesting in front of the school.

These students give me hope. They are smart, social media savvy and won't be talked-down to by politicians like Broten who act like youth can't understand what the Liberal and Conservatives are doing to destroy their future.

In an article in the Globe and Mail on September 19 Broten said, "We are urging teachers to recognize the importance of extracurricular programs to our students, to raise their issues with us but keep the kids out of it."

That is a slap in the face for students across Ontario who are sick and tired of being talked about like they don't exist. A recent article in yorkregion.com, covering a walkout at Richmond Green Secondary School (RGSS) in Richmond hill, shows today's students aren't putting up with being told they're little more than pawns.

"Today, we stand on the precipice of a new age. The world thinks we have no voice, that the students have become both docile and ignorant," said Ali Taghva, 16, to a cheering crowd at RGSS, "We ask you to show the nation today that we stand united. This is our movement; the students' movement!"

I remember what it was like in high school and sports was an important part of getting through that experience. I was never the best athlete but I played high school football and was on the wrestling team and some days, okay more days than I would like to admit, it was the main reason that I went to school and didn't end up dropping out.

Today's high school students face an even bleaker future than I did, with an economic crisis shedding an entire generation's worth of good-paying jobs, skyrocketing tuition for post-secondary education and nasty cuts to basic social services that make our society function.

August's Labour Force Survey, published by Statistics Canada, paints a dire picture for youth with unemployment rates ranging from 11.3 per cent for 20-24 year olds to a staggering 30.2 per cent for students aged 15-16. It should be noted that the average employment rate was one of the lowest on record at only 47.9 per cent, meaning over half of students were not in the workforce at all.

While this might have started over sports and clubs being cancelled students have a lot to protest about these days and government should pay attention -- not dismiss them.

Today's high-school student without sports is tomorrow's college student racking up debt and next week's angry, unemployed or precarious worker.

As this government takes away our dreams, they shouldn't be surprised when we won't let them sleep.


Mick Sweetman is the managing editor of The Dialog and a former news intern at rabble.ca. 

This article was originally published in The Dialog and is reprinted here with permission. 

Photo: mississauga.com

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