She Speaks: What death by a thousand cuts actually feels like

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At eight years old, I put a book on the counter at Huntsville Public Library. I’d signed up for my very first card at this magical place, and I was in awe. There seemed to be an entirely different world within these walls. People chose to stay there, for hours, because it was one of the only places you could keep warm and dry and receive services without spending money. I often killed the two-and-a-half hours after school and before my mom got off work, at the library, reading. That’s what I did the day I checked out my first book – I didn’t leave, though. It wasn’t time yet. So I sat down in the stacks and read the book. I finished and then returned it without even leaving the library, and before I left, I brought eight more books to the counter.

Today, I learned the Progressive Conservative government is slashing library funding by 50 per cent.

I was 13-years old and going into grade eight at Irwin Memorial Public School in Dwight when I first heard about the class field trip to Ottawa. It was something all the students talked about with excitement – a tradition at the school, and many of their older siblings had gone previously, returning with tales of hijinks and shenanigans to which we could only hope to aspire. This was my second-and-a-half year at this school. Before that, I’d gone to Huntsville Public School, a completely different experience. I came to Irwin with a vocabulary that shocked even the principal (I believe I exposed many of my peers to the “C” word for the first time, and many other words you don’t get gold stars for knowing), I also came with the attitude of someone who was used to disappearing into a huge classroom of students. Suddenly, because of the small class size, I became incredibly visible. In fact, when my teacher noticed toward the end of that year that I hadn’t submitted my permission slip or money for the trip, she reached out.

“Is there a reason your parents haven’t paid for the trip?”

I shrugged. “I don’t think I can go.”

“Is it… because it’s too expensive?”

I shrugged again, but she was persistent. This teacher, who sang us “Linger” by the Cranberries on her acoustic guitar and didn’t try to hide her tears of anger when we drove her to the brink of madness, offered to pay for my trip to Ottawa. She thought it was important. She thought I was important. I hadn’t disappeared in her classroom like I had when the room contained 30-plus students.

I went to Ottawa that year because my teacher saw me.

Now the PC government is pink-slipping teachers and blowing up classrooms. There are students who won’t be seen, their potential lost in the din, like mine almost was.

Years later, after university, I became one of a rare breed: an educated young person returning to her home town. I had been part of the post-high school exodus, thrilled to put Huntsville behind me. But now, I was back, and one of the first things I did was seek out supports for women. I came across the YWCA Muskoka’s long-running Women in Business and Business of Life courses. I took both, even though I had no idea what type of business I’d ever want to do. I just wanted to learn and feel connected to something bigger than myself. Those courses introduced me to women who are still my dear friends seven years later; whose stories and struggles inspired me, and the lessons I learned with them remain foremost in my mind. I felt grounded in Huntsville for the first time in my life – I had found my community, and it began there.

Funding for these programs have been cut. Staff contracts have not been renewed. I guess I should be grateful I got the support and education I needed when I did. If I only cared about myself, I guess I could get over it. After all, I got mine.

The first time I attended a DART conference (Domestic Assault Review Team), the keynote, who I would later befriend through the Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services peer mentorship program (another life-saving agency on the receiving end of cuts and broken funding promises), left a huge impact on me. She shared her story of abuse at the hands of a trusted person, and her experience with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, a committee that provides victims of crimes with compensation toward counselling, lost wages, and other damages. This woman is an incredible advocate for vulnerable people now.

The board is being shut down – no longer can victims be recompensed for the crimes done to them.

In my work at the women’s shelter, I have referred countless women to Legal Aid with a free two-hour legal certificate so they can contact a lawyer and get much-needed legal advice regarding domestic violence, immigration issues, and other legal issues. Without this support, low-income women would not have access to competent and committed legal support. This representation has been the deciding factor in keeping exploited, abused women from returning to heinous conditions, either in the violent family home or their country of origin.

Legal Aid Ontario is losing 30 per cent of its funding.

I wish I didn’t have to rip my chest open to release these stories to prove to the government that people matter. I wish these were inalienable truths, not matters for debate. I wish that we, as a society, could not forget for one second that a single person lost because of numbers on a graph is a step toward the dehumanization of all marginalized people. And to those in power, we are all numbers, we are all acceptable losses in this fire sale that Doug Ford et al has unleashed on our province. If you haven’t experienced loss yet, you will – but likely someone you love has been deeply impacted by these cuts. Most of us, however, won’t or can’t openly talk about it: who wants to be the rape victim who steps in front of a microphone to bemoan the loss of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which may have paid for her trauma counselling? Who wants to be the poor woman writing letters to the editor about the plight of her poverty and what it felt like to have a moment of hope with the Universal Basic Income project – only to lose her apartments and return to the line at the food bank?

Why are we consistently demanding that those among us who have lost the most also be the ones at the front of the rally, begging not for more, but just to keep what we had?

I would not be writing this if it weren’t for the many social services and safety nets that made me so proud to live in Ontario. I don’t know where I’d be, frankly. Our desire to uplift the so-called ‘least of us’ is what I loved most about being a Canadian. Now, not a day passes that I don’t hear of another vital service being gutted in the name of the almighty dollar. The budget is being balanced on our backs and we are crumbling.

But hey – apparently that’s the cost of doing business. And we’re open for it.

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Kathleen May (Photo: Kai Rannik)

Kathleen May (Photo: Kai Rannik)

Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.

14 Comments

  1. Wow. Thank you for this – for exposing your own trials in hopes of shaking up the apathy that allows buck-a-beer boy’s cuts to continue unimpeded. May your words remind others that humans are not ranked, as these cuts imply, but rather indelibly linked. May we come together to build a world where human lives matter more than the price of beer or gas.

  2. Henk Rietveld on

    Thank you for a very thoughtful and perceptive piece. We have elected a government with very little soul, and no compassion. The very things you identify are the things that make living here so much better, and yet this current crop of cutters is out to reduce those services that many of us have come to depend on. And corner grocery beer and new BLUE licence plates? Dumb and dumber!

  3. Chris Boorman on

    Well written Kathleen. The actions of this government are without insight or heart and are affecting us all.
    Your voice is an important stand against this rampant attack against the things that truly matter in our lives – like Libraries, not libations at 9:00 A.M.!

    I wrote my letter to Norm Miller last night and signed a petition against the Library cuts. I am thinking a protest in front of Norm Miller’s office, might be in order!

  4. While I am sympathetic, Kathleen, since the Liberal government left Ontario with a $15 billion deficit (which is unsustainable) what choice did the Ford government have? The accumulated provincial debt is, of course, much larger. One of the reasons why services have to be curtailed is because of the enormous amount of interest we are paying on the provincial debt. When governments are in that predicament, the bankers then control our expenditures. Cuts are almost as unpopular as raising taxes but they are necessary to getting the Province back on a sounder financial footing. We can’t continue to milk the productive wage earners dry. I’m sure that Doug Ford would like to have a forest of money trees in order to stabilize the Province’s finances, but since he doesn’t, cuts must be made. One problem he has is that Ottawa, under the Liberals, downloaded much of the social spending onto the provinces.

    • Arleigh Luckett on

      Cutting services and laying off workers is a very short sighted attempt at saving money, if that is the real motive for the cuts. Businesses want well educated employees. Businesses want to locate in communities that will attract employees who will want to stay. Families want to live in towns and cities with good schools, hospitals and libraries. Meanwhile the recent budget is substantially bigger than last year’s budget so where are all these “savings” being spent?

    • People like you are the very reason that Doug Ford and his cronies will destroy women like this. To say you’re sympathetic is maddening when in fact you are not. It’s all just fine with you because Ford has “no choice” in your mind, and you just don’t want to be “milked dry” (give me a break – do you actually not have a nickel left after you pay your taxes?).
      When the wealthiest pay their FAIR SHARE in this province, we won’t have the debt we have. I know personally a few very wealthy people who have managed to pay next to no taxes and they are proud of it; and if I know a few in my small circle of experiences, there must be tens of thousands of such greedy people across the province.

      • “People like you”? I am not wealthy if that is what you mean. Apparently you think you are a mind-reader because you presume to insist that I am not sympathetic. Your rant is not at all rational, by the way. I agree that all should pay their “FAIR SHARE” but are we really going to gain anything by accusing all conservatives of being “greedy”? I pay my taxes with no complaint but I see many wage earners with families who are struggling to get by after paying the taxes that truly greedy governments are levying. Big central governments with their outrageous waste is a danger to a free people. I would never begrudge one cent that is legitimately spent to help anyone, but truthfully, I resent the cronyism that gives VERY lucrative top jobs in the bureaucracy to people who are often quite unqualified for them. That is what big government does–they reward their political supporters at the expense of everyone else. If it happened locally, it would be noticed but when it is off at a place remote from most voters, the foxes are “guarding” the hen house.

        I am not a conservative because I am “greedy” I am a conservative because I want to conserve the nation and the freedoms that we have. I oppose the corrupt practices of big government wherever they exist and do not care what political party is ostensibly “in control”. In reality, the government system grinds on, no matter which party has been elected.

    • Catherine Henderson on

      Ford does have a choice. He inflated the deficit to create a crisis to justify cuts yet he has millions and millions of dollars to waste while he persues a vindictive agenda and rewards his buddies and developer friends. He deliberately eliminated revenue sources and preaches a false doctrine of being able to have things without paying for them. And enough gullible voters swallowed the lies. Note that Ford did not receive even 50% of the popular vote (he got 40.5%). Taxes are part of the cost of a civil society and everyone has to pay a fair share but the richest are not contributing their fair share whether they are individuals or corporations, while the most vulnerable become even more vulnerable and Ford is quite happy to make them pay the price. Soon all of us will be paying the price for his environmental policies as our climate continues to change, our forests burn down, we die in greater numbers because there is no ambulance service, and our water systems fail due to lack of inspectors. The idea that tax breaks and incentives for business that are supposed to lead to jobs has long since proven not to be the case but big business continues to benefit without contributing their fair share to the tax base and move on when they want, taking our tax dollars with them. Ford claims he’s making the hard choices – he’s not.

  5. Susan Lovell on

    Kathleen this is amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing. Please ensure somehow that this is read by Norm Miller and Ford. Lived-experience stories can help change attitudes. You are a brave young person.

  6. Maybe the provincial government, including the top bureaucrats, should submit to an austerity program. It matters little what shape the initiative takes: salary cuts, no COLA, no expense allowances, no raises, etc. It would at least be a show of solidarity with most Ontarians. And it wouldn’t result in cancelling our social safety net; or promoting climate change, alcohol/gambling addiction, mental health disability, or illiteracy.
    .
    Misery loves company; even this company.

  7. My own concerns seem a bit petty when compared to all the things that Kathleen pointed out. But they are mine just the same. A cut in funding at the library has essentially forced my bookclub to end. Only people with money can afford to buy books for such a purpose. So the rest of us people who live from pay cheque to pay cheque are denied, once again, access to free services which were set up to educate and uplift our lives. Since he’s targeted our children too by cutting funding to schools what hope have we? (Wait till he sees the Grade 3 and 6 test results now).
    Conservatives always cut social programs instead of huge and unjustified salaries and expenses or forcing big business to pay its fair share. It confirms for me where Ford’s loyalties lie. If anyone actually believes his cuts will improve our lives they are in for a big shock 3 years from now when the effects start to show. More unemployment, more sickness, more suicides, more poverty. He will leave a province in despair.

  8. Charles Wilson on

    Forty-seven per cent of us voted for Mr. Ford whose campaign featured the six million dollar Hydro man front and centre. Rob Ferguson wrote a useful synopsis in the Star as to why we voted for him: he wasn’t Liberal, didn’t condescend to us and promised to cut taxes.

    So 53 per cent of us can complain. And a big chunk of those 53 per cent live in beautiful downtown Toronto, soon to be run directly by Mr. Ford who is apparently prepared to spend 28 billion of Ontario-wide tax money building a new Toronto only subway relief line which for some reason we don’t seem to be very grateful for or actually even believe it will ever get off the drawing board.

    So how has Mr. Ford’s campaign promise to cut taxes by cutting expenses gone? Well the six million dollar man cost $1.5 million to fire and he got his pension so no saving there and the Hydro board resigned en masse and it blew a deal to buy Avista which was billed as profitable. So poster boy didn’t work out exactly as the folks at Queens Park hoped.

    Next target was health care. Health care is tricky because doctors, especially good ones, are in short supply some of them earning nearly seven figures and working in private fiefdoms called hospitals with staff paid for by us to enable the huge fees they earn. So firing doctors isn’t exactly in the cards. So that leaves “reorganizing” the health care to make delivery of services more efficient. Here’s not the place to comment on how that usually works out, but centralized health care delivery isn’t exactly perfect is you live hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from Queens Park.

    Skip to teachers. Teachers, so Mr. Ford thinks, are generally a sort of Orange Crush/ Liberal lot who think his populist or tribal politics are a bit primitive and advocate universal education opportunities. Also teachers have this new math thing so they obviously can’t count. So we will stop renewing contract for new ones and consolidate the programs they offer. People will whinge a bit for a while but its three years till the next election and they will get over it or better still go to Nova Scotia and take all that orange stuff with them, goes the Premier’s thinking. Meantime we will get some bread and circus stuff going — a fight over carbon taxes with the dreaded Liberals in even more dreaded Ottawa should create the requisite external threat and unite the province behind us or at least consolidate our base.

    So stories like this which tug at the heart strings, are well written and exactly on point, what do they achieve? Do they possibly make Mr. Ford change his mind? Well he did change his mind on the autism funding so possibly. Do they consolidate the rest us behind a newer kinder, more gentle government initiative to properly fund historically important programs? Could be but hasn’t so far been the result. Do they simply separate the space between the ads inserted in the paper by conservative businessmen selling overpriced real estate and gas guzzling automobiles to all and sundry? Well, yes they do that. But what they do really is make us feel better about ourselves: yes we voted this government in because it was necessary to cut the Liberal spend-aholics off at the knees but see, we are really nice people and hated doing it. So is this salve to our collective conscience a good or a bad thing? Well if the only net result is triggering readers to write in response restating the obvious then bad, if one single positive thing is done as a result of the story, then it’s, to quote Chef Ramsey selling cable TV, “Bloody brilliant. Don’t suppose you can you cook?” And he doesn’t mean the books. Or does he?

    • Chris Boorman on

      I am of the percent that did not vote for Doug Ford – and all of his actions to date, are why.
      All the heartfelt responses to Kathleen’s amazing writing, of course cannot be bad.
      “Voices carry”
      We wonder why we all have to pay the price of the wealthy and the corporations thinking that they do not have to contribute to the fundamental aspects of a safe, caring and prospering society for us all.

  9. A credible lived-experience perspective, and a courageous, reasoned read! Given the ‘death-by-a-thousand-cuts’ by our ‘buck-a-beer’ premier, welcome to the increased probability of the ‘Americanization’ of Ontario’s school system with an aging and gutted large-class size public system – which, no doubt, will build ‘resilience’ according to our minister of education, Lisa Thompson – for the ‘unwashed,’ and small class-size personalized-attention private schools for the ‘washed,’ who can and will pay whatever is required for a good education.
    All of this has significant implications for the availability of, and the accessibility to quality public education especially for children – regardless of social class – in smaller non-urbanized communities like Huntsville.
    And yes, we must address the provincial deficit and debt but to do so, this we will require a government with the political fortitude to reasonably tax the wealthy – at both the individual and corporate levels – and close in many cases, their legal off-shore tax loop-holes in the name of the ‘common good,’ and a more level playing-field for all the children in Ontario regardless of social class and locality, in this an era of growing income disparity and a growing lack of educational opportunity at the post-secondary level. In this regard, an interesting article: https://beta.ctvnews.ca/local/kitchener/2019/4/18/1_4386367.html?fbclid=IwAR3WTpPTktUL48IzII7pFn9uLbrE6a5dp97gGsf4PrHMlSw3QdgCsntD1EM

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