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"Canada’s youth will suffer as a result of the projected budget cuts to the Ontario education system.”
"Canada’s youth will suffer as a result of the projected budget cuts to the Ontario education system.”

"Canada’s youth will suffer as a result of the projected budget cuts to the Ontario education system.”

Melanie Asselin is a mental health advocate and Jack Chapter Lead who is currently piloting Jack.org’s Campus Assessment Tool at the University of Toronto-Mississauga.

"Canada’s youth will suffer as a result of the projected budget cuts to the Ontario education system.”

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Now is the time to advocate for the needs of Ontario’s students.

The Ontario education system is facing extreme cuts. In the wake of an estimated budget shortfall of $67 million, 246,000 students, 36,000 employees, and 582 schools are currently facing changes that will increase stress and remove many supports for students and the staff who offer them. 

There are hundreds of possible unintended consequences behind these cuts, particularly when it comes to mental health. 50% to 80% of mental illnesses show up before the age of 18. While we know that biology is a strong factor, so are environmental, social, and cultural circumstances - the things that define our school years. If our brains are computers, schools are the warehouses in which they are programmed. 

So I recently got on the phone and spoke with students, educators, and support staff across Ontario to hear what’s happening on the ground. These conversations were difficult to have; the frustration around these cuts is exacerbated by the feeling that they can’t be fought. But they can. They must. And it begins by knowing where we stand. 

So let’s start with the basics. 

The mandated class-size increase will lead to a reduction in elective courses being offered, and thus fewer opportunities for students to explore potential interests and passions. Harvey Bischof of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation stated, “Students will have less access to courses that will allow them to choose the path to their own success. Ultimately, this will lead to a decrease in student success.” Meanwhile, for classes that are still being offered, admission is likely to become increasingly competitive, forcing students to make their course selections far in advance to avoid being waitlisted. “Courses are in very high demand and it’s been impactful on my school’s overall climate” said Arwa Hilal, a 12th grade student at Cawthra Park Secondary School. Trying to choose courses and plan a roadmap to postsecondary can already be extremely anxiety-inducing, and these cuts will add barriers to this process while also removing the supports that have previously helped students work through the process. I believe students will be forced into making decisions prematurely and without knowing all the available options.

With some teachers being laid off and others deemed 'surplus', there will be less one-on-one coaching for students making decisions about their future at a time where those decisions are harder to make than ever before. “Students will feel a greater sense of hopelessness and helplessness.” said Kimberly Perry, a child and youth counsellor at George Vanier Secondary School. On top of that, an as-yet unquantified reduction in professional support staff, including guidance counselors and child and youth workers, will limit outlets for student help-seeking and place greater demand on the staff that remain. This will also limit the opportunity for Jack Chapters - a program in which 95% of participants feel they’re able to support their friends because of their Chapter training - and other similar extra-curricular initiatives, as staff will already be spread more thinly. “Taking educators away would make it harder for teachers to get to know their students’ strengths and challenges, and nearly impossible to give any of them one-on-one attention.” said Marit Stiles, NDP Education Critic. At the end of the day, students will not have enough adults to support their growth or their mental health needs, and staff are at risk of hitting their capacity far more quickly.

We cannot be certain what exactly will happen in September. My heart aches for the students who are now in uncharted territory, facing stresses that students in past cohorts didn’t need to face—or, at least, didn’t need to face alone. I also sympathize with the directors, the boards, and the educators who are forced to make impossible choices: Will they cut electives, or ESL services? After-school programs, or classes for students with disabilities? The number of guidance counsellors, or the number of special education teachers?

Still, as September grows nearer, we can’t lose hope and we can’t give up—not on our province’s young people and not on those who teach and support them. Students are walking out and wearing pins, and as they brand themselves in unity against the cuts, their voices begin to look more and more like a united front—not one against government officials, but one in support of education.

If the cuts go on to take effect as speculated, it will be up to each of us to do what we can to step in and fill the gaps. Students, staff, and members of the community need to be aware of the impacts these cuts will have in order to identify what is within their power to affect and influence. Now is the time to advocate for the needs of Ontario’s students. Our collective voice is louder than the sum of its parts.

While my teenage years were incredibly challenging, they were still a period of learning, exploration, and self-discovery. I needed to seek support for my mental health outside of my school community, but those within my school community were available to help me find it. Now, three years after my high school graduation, Ontario’s youth will begin to know a different experience unless we take action against the provincial cuts to education. I feel lucky to have had the support that I did, though “luck” isn’t the right word. My experience shouldn’t be considered “lucky” or “privileged”. It should be absolutely, inarguably normal.