Classrooms were empty as 1 500 Garneau students walked out of school at 12:20 pm on 4 April 2019 to protest against Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s proposed changes to Ontario’s education plan. Bright placards waved around, and chants of protest and supportive car honks could be heard throughout the neighbourhood.
The proposed changes, which will be implemented throughout Ontario in the next few years, may cut $25 million in funds for Education Programs – Other (EPO). In addition, average class sizes will be increased, six thousand teachers will lose their jobs, and a cell phone ban will be introduced. The changes will also decrease base funding for the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) by $5 million annually and the Indigenous Culture Fund by $2 million.
The government will make eLearning mandatory for at least four out of the thirty courses required for graduation and has decided to replace the current sex education curriculum with one from 2010, which has content from 1998. They have also cancelled funding for four university campuses in Ontario and have cut free tuition for low-income students. Additionally, the government will cut funding for the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), which offers financial aid to students for post-secondary degrees.
“Class changes affect Garneau. The government wants to change the average class size from twenty-two to twenty-eight, and average class sizes at Garneau are around thirty people. So adding six more students will mean average class sizes may balloon upwards to thirty-five to forty people,” said Grade 11 student Nelson Lee, the main organizer of the walkout. “The government will also be cutting six thousand teachers from Ontario, which means that your favourite teachers might not be here next year.”
The walkout began in the back field with speeches from Takwah Ahmad, Bilal Bartaai, Wania Gondal, Nelson Lee, Larissa Long, Taira Mehta, Venkat Muthaly, and Evan Woo, who were among thirty students who helped organize the protest. Participants also had a chance to make placards at a poster-making station. Although Timbits were promised before the event, the five hundred Timbits that were purchased for participants were taken by students before the event started.
The walkout was very important for many students, like Grade 11 student Azizul Chowdhury, who said, “Doug Ford is making a lot of cuts to our education and he is undermining our future and our chances of success. He thinks that students are too stupid to speak up about it. If he’s going to give us trouble, we’re going to give him trouble.”
At approximately 1:20 pm, students began to make their way to the side of the school facing Overlea Boulevard. Their chants and posters drew the attention of passing vehicles, many of which honked in support of the students.
Grade 9 student Cynthia Wang commented on the support shown by others during the walkout. She said, “When we stood at the side of the road, a lot more cars than I expected honked to show their support and it was really nice and empowering to see that.”
In terms of organizing the event, Nelson and the thirty other walkout organizers first had to see if the students of MGCI were willing to walk out. They also had to contact provincial organizers, including Frank Hong, who is an executive of March for Our Education, a student-run group that initiated the walkout. When Marc Garneau was registered for the walkout, the organizational team had to make posters and Instagram posts to promote the walkout. They also made banners and planned announcements, speeches, and Q and A sessions. Aside from Garneau, seven hundred other schools protested against these changes as well. All across Ontario, students of all ages from Peterborough to Toronto walked out to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government.
After the walkout, there was a letter signing event held in the Galleria by the logistics and promotions teams throughout 10 and 11 April. Eight letters were written, seven of which were addressed to Doug Ford and one to Kathleen Wynne. Out of one thousand copies made of the letters, 930 were signed by MGCI students. The team is currently devising ways to mail the letters.
Nelson added, “Whenever any change is made, by the provincial government, the federal government, the municipal government, or even our own student council, they must consult everyone who will be impacted by these changes, or else, we will walk out!”
His views were evidently supported by thousands of other students across Ontario, who were connected by their desire to fight for their education and take their futures into their own hands.