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.
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.
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 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.