Yesterday, thousands of students across the province—several hundred of them in Huntsville—walked out of their classrooms to protest planned cuts to Ontario’s education system.
Both praise and condemnation of their actions have been swift. While the online comments dismissing their message are disappointing, it was the reaction of Ontario’s Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson, that was most disturbing.
Thompson’s ministry is tasked with ensuring future generations of adults have the skills they need to be productive members of society. But those skills go beyond being able to calculate a math equation or form a coherent sentence (the latter something sorely lacking in many of the online comments made by adults). Those skills also include the ability to think critically and assess information. And the ability and confidence to speak up and speak out when they see a wrong that needs to be righted.
In comments to reporters the day before the planned walkout, when asked if she encouraged students to have a voice and to protest, Thompson said, “you know what I was really excited about was last fall when we created a forum for students to have their voices heard, and when they speak up in a constructive environment like the largest education consultation in the history of this ministry, they had an opportunity to impact change and that they did… Done in a constructive way, in a forum facilitated properly through the ministry, people really can have an impact.”
And when asked if she felt that students were being used as political pawns by teachers, she replied, “Students deserve to have a chance to learn and they deserve the chance to succeed and have a clear career pathway that is based on skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow… What I want to say is I appreciate everybody’s voice if it’s presented in a constructive manner much like we facilitated this past fall.”
In other words: ‘we’ll tell you when and where it’s okay to speak up. Otherwise, sit down and shut up.’
And in a media release sent late last night, Thompson focused on just two things: teachers’ unions and math skills. She did not address any of the seven issues raised by students (math was not one of them), nor did she acknowledge their right, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to freedom of peaceful assembly. Instead, she called the walkouts a political stunt and criticized teachers for condoning the students’ behaviour.
But, Ms. Thompson, you too should be condoning it, and indeed applauding it. Most of these students can’t yet vote, and in your government, as you yourself said, they are apparently only allowed to speak up when and where they are told. So how else are they to get their message across in a way that will make not just your government, but the larger population, sit up and take notice?
The assertion that these students are acting as pawns of teachers’ unions is demeaning—it insults their intelligence and suggests that they are incapable of free thinking. And if you believe that to be true, that students can’t think for themselves, then your education system is failing on a far greater level than students’ math scores, in a way that would have far-reaching social impacts. A society that follows authority without question is on a slippery slope.
Whether you agree or disagree with the students’ message, they are entitled to their opinion, as you are yours. They are entitled to fight for what they believe in, as are you. This is democracy at its best, and our political ‘leaders’ would do well to pay attention. Trying to shut down your current and future constituents because they disagree with you is bad form.
Will this protest make a difference? Maybe not today—the Ford government is intent on pushing through its mandate, public opinion be damned. But protests are about awareness, about highlighting issues and keeping those issues at the forefront of public consciousness.
Rather than condemn these students for their protest, we should be encouraging more of it. From everyone. We don’t see this type of political passion and motivation often enough. Did some students blow it off as an excuse to get out of class? Probably. But in every election, more than 30 per cent of adults—and in some years more than 40 per cent—abandon their right to vote. Political apathy is not an issue confined to youth.
Traditionally, the youngest voters have had the lowest turnout but in the 2015 federal election, the number of voters aged 18 to 24 was up 18 per cent over 2011, the largest increase of any age group.
Student actions this week are heartening and, one hopes, an indication of their future political involvement. They may be ‘kids’ now, but by the time the next provincial election rolls around, the bulk of these students will be adults who are eligible to vote. And they are watching how we respond to them today.
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