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The March For Life counter-protest was an exercise in futility

Modern protests are not short on passion, but lack substance

The March For Life counter-protest was an exercise in futility

It is a sad comment on the current state of political discourse that the police frequently have to separate groups of people with opposing ideas. The more important an issue, the more crucial it is that the truth – or something approximating the truth – be reached, and this can only be done through rational dialogue.

It is only through reasoned discourse that the complexities of political issues can be fully explored, and the points of contention ironed-out. If there is any hope at all of resolving some of the bitter disputes which populate our modern political landscape, it rests on the willingness of activists on both sides to control their emotions and use their higher faculties to argue their cases intelligently and, crucially, to consider that they might be wrong about some or all of what they believe. There may not be a path to compromise and conciliation on any particular topic, but if there is, it is through conversation, not conflict.

This calm, rational, self-aware truth-seeking is precisely what did not happen at Carr Hall on May 9, when pro-choice demonstrators converged to protest against anti-abortion workshops being held within. As The Varsity reported, police were called to the scene and guarded entrances while the protestors chanted outside.  

Whatever ideas were being discussed inside Carr Hall — correct or incorrect, laudable or dangerous — went unchallenged. No minds were changed on either side. Nothing was accomplished, and no progress was made.

Whether or not the police presence was necessary to prevent violence is unknown and beside the point; rather than putting forth an intelligent argument or rationally engaging with the ideas to which they were opposed, the protestors waved signs and chanted slogans. They made noise rather than sense. As a result, yet another abortion clash has come and gone, and we are no closer to agreement, compromise, or conciliation.

This is the dismal reality of modern political discourse: rather than advancing and defending ideas of their own, protestors instead try to drown out or shut down ideas they oppose. Of course they will say they are not “just opposed” to these — their reasoning is that the ideas are hateful, dangerous, or both and need to be suppressed.

The possibility that their own ideas may be considered hateful or dangerous by others, and that to determine which is which requires open, intelligent discourse, does not seem to cross their minds — neither does the idea that it may not be their place to decide, on behalf of Canadian civil society, which ideas may or may not be put forth for public consideration. Still farther from their minds is the possibility that, if these ideas are really so dangerous, and if they are so correct that they are justified in censoring them unilaterally, that it might be better — indeed crucial — to publicly engage with and dispatch them through rational argument, so that they might be publicly shown to be wrong.

Abortion rights are extraordinarily important, and the more they come under attack the more crucial it is that the people defending them come across as calm, rational, and well-informed, rather than aggressive and unreasonable. It is just as crucial that they focus their attention on winning the debate rather than shutting it down, for — as with all attempts to stifle free expression — it will not be suppressed, but merely driven underground, where those with whom they refuse to engage will have no opposition.

Simon Capobianco is a fourth-year student studying math and bioethics at Woodsworth College.

In Photos: The Rally for Education

Thousands converged on Queen's Park to protest cuts to education

In Photos: The Rally for Education

“We have a fight on our hands”

Two teachers on what the Rally for Education meant

“We have a fight on our hands”

On April 6, thousands of people crowded the lawns of Queen’s Park. Union flags swung above the crowd while kids dodged through protesters’ legs, dragging cardboard signs behind them.

Jointly organized by five Ontario teachers’ unions, the Rally for Education was held to protest the Ford government’s proposed cuts to education funding. Teachers, students, and concerned citizens shook signs and fists at the Ontario Legislative Building, which loomed over those gathered in its shadow.

Under the government’s new plan, 3,475 full-time teaching positions would disappear, with 1,558 positions this coming school year alone. Doug Ford further plans to increase the average class sizes of both elementary and high schools, as well as introduce mandatory online classes for secondary students. The government also proposed sweeping changes to funding for students with autism, which would drastically reduce their overall support.

Teachers, already underpaid and overworked, are infuriated. But not out of concern for their jobs or their workloads. Overwhelmingly, they’re worried about their students and what these cuts will mean for their quality of education.

To get a better sense of what this means, I asked two Ottawa-based middle school teachers: Lori-Ann Zylstra and Cindy May, who’ve both worked in education for over two decades.

Cindy is my mom, and Lori-Ann is her sister, my aunt. They’re both represented by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and teach in rural schools outside of Ottawa. They woke up at 4:30 am to catch the bus to Toronto for the rally and went back that same afternoon.

Lori-Ann, Cindy, and the author

“I went to the protest today because I felt it was really important to stand and be counted,” Lori-Ann told me. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding among the general public simply because they’re not teachers. When people hear 28 kids as a class size, for example, they don’t realize that that’s an average.”

Cindy nodded. “I have huge concerns about the impact of the cuts on the classroom. And what it’s actually going to mean, face to face, day to day with the students,” she added.

Classes are already dangerously large, they explained, and increasing them further will have significant negative effects on students. On rare occasions when a number of students are not in class, Cindy told me, “students who are remaining will almost always say, ‘Wow, this is so nice, we have so much time to talk about things and do things.’”

They’re also concerned about the impact the funding cuts will have on students with autism. “Doug Ford presents it like some new thing that there will be students with autism in the classroom,” Lori-Ann said, but “it is already common for me to have one or more students who are on the autism spectrum in my class.”

 She’s received no special training in how to better teach children with unique needs, but there is usually extra funding to provide specialized support. But “what [Ford] is going to do is take it all away and fund them with the same amount as a kid who isn’t on the spectrum,” she explained. This will transfer sole responsibility of their care to already-overburdened teachers.

While Lori-Ann told me that she wouldn’t mind taking on those responsibilities, she explained that “the problem is that it is already challenging to adequately service the the academic and social and emotional needs in my classroom.”

“The government claims… cuts are about fiscal responsibility,” Cindy continued. “If this is what all these changes and cuts are supposed to be about, then let’s get to the real meaning of that. Let’s address the mental health needs of our students, the social determinants of their health, development needs and so on. What are we doing now to address those?” She shook her head.

Both Cindy and Lori-Ann were also deeply concerned about what mandatory online courses for high school students might mean. “Unless you are a student who is very self-directed with lots of initiative, you aren’t going to succeed in online-only courses,” Lori-Ann explained. Furthermore, “the strong possibility is that there’s going to be private companies administering these courses,” which would effectively “move us toward the two-tier educational system,” she said.

A two-tier educational system would look something like this: children from wealthy families would be sent to high quality private schools, whereas children from poorer families would be effectively ghettoized into lower quality public schools. “And I think this is just Doug Ford’s first step into privatizing education. He’s trying to Americanize it.” Lori-Ann warned. “And we see where that’s gotten the Americans,” Cindy added.

If this worries you, take action. Cindy and Lori-Ann both hoped everyday people would engage critically with the government’s rhetoric and “just ask teachers questions, ask [them] what [they’re] so upset about.” Members of the public are also welcome to join teachers in the #RedForEd campaign, wherein supporters wear red shirts every Friday in solidarity with teachers and education workers. But most importantly, show up! “Anytime that there’s any sort of rally or protest, everyone is welcome,” Lori-Ann smiled.

“This was just the first step, I’m certain, in a series of movements and initiatives that teachers are going to take,” she said.

“In my 25 years of teaching, I’ve never seen anything like [these cuts],” Cindy said. “We have a fight on our hands. And as teachers we need to be prepared to step up and fight for our students education.” We all do.

Thousands protest Ford’s proposed education cuts at Queen’s Park

Massive crowd voiced anger over class sizes, dismantling autism program

Thousands protest Ford’s proposed education cuts at Queen’s Park

Thousands of teachers, students, and parents from all over Ontario gathered at Queen’s Park on April 6 to protest against proposed changes to education by the provincial government, with many coming from as far as Sudbury and Thunder Bay in more than 150 buses.

The rally was organized by five different teachers’ unions: the Elementary Teachers’ Federation Ontario, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario.

Premier Doug Ford’s decisions to increase average high school class sizes from 22 to 28, introduce mandatory online courses for students to obtain a secondary-school diploma, and cut at least 3,475 teaching jobs across the province were among the issues protested.

These cuts could lead to class sizes of up to 40 students, the cancellation of various electives, and dismantling effects for the Ontario autism program.

The protesters packed the streets with banners at 12:00 pm, chanting “Shut it down!”, “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts,” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Doug Ford’s gotta go!”

Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath spoke at the rally, condemning Ford and the education cuts.

“We have an education system that is really hanging by the thread, and we have a premier who is about to cut that thread,” Horwath said. “We are here to say no.”

Annalisa Crudo-Perri, President of the Ontario Association for Parents in Catholic Education Toronto also took to the stage. “Education is an investment in our child’s futures,” Crudo-Perri said.

“It must not become a deficit reduction exercise that will compromise their opportunity to seek higher postsecondary education.”

OSSTF President Harvey Bischof also spoke at the rally, saying, “Our message is simple: our education system needs investment, not cuts.”

He also believes that the Ford government is “starving the system” to allow for the privatization of the education system.

Other speakers at the event included AEFO Ontario President Rémi Sabourin, Ontario School Board Council of Unions President Laura Walton, CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn, Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff; and Ontario Federation Labour President Chris Buckley.

“The premier, of course, will continue to threaten us and intimidate us, tell his lies, we will take none of it,” Yussuff exclaimed to the crowd.

Minister of Education Lisa Thompson echoed a previous comment from Ford, who called teachers’ unions “thugs,” and said in a statement the day before the rally that unions have not been focused on student success, adding that the government would not be “distracted by union tactics.”

 

Students march to Queen’s Park in protest of OSAP cuts

Attendees split over support for Liberal MPPs present, cheered NDP speakers

Students march to Queen’s Park in protest of OSAP cuts

Students from schools across the GTA marched from City Hall to Queen’s Park on February 4 in protest of the provincial cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Similar protests also took place in Guelph, Ottawa, and the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

The march, hosted by Students for Ontario, March for our Education, and the Ontario Student Action Network, went north on University Avenue toward Queen’s Park, where organizers, student activists, and MPPs gathered to make speeches and rally the protesters.

One of the first speakers was Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario chairperson Nour Alideeb. She began by commending the many protesters for their efforts in pressuring the government on this issue.

Addressing the crowd, Alideeb said, “We are going to show them that OSAP cuts will not be tolerated, and we’re going to show them that our students, as individuals and as a collective, will not be silenced.”

She invited everyone in attendance to return to Queen’s Park on February 19 to welcome back the government when it is back in session.

“When I see you next, look around you. This group is going to double and it’s going to triple in size, because this government needs to remember that we are the students.”

First-year student activists for Students for Ontario, Le Nguyen and Tyler Riches, then got on stage to speak to the crowd.

“I am standing in front of you today as a proud female immigrant and the first person in my family to attend postsecondary education in Canada,” said Nguyen. “I, along with many, many low-income students in Ontario, receive free tuition thanks to the expansion of OSAP last year.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling my stories to get some pity looks. I’m telling my stories to show that students from disadvantaged backgrounds — like me — regardless of the barriers and struggles, we still have the strength and the determinism to study hard and contribute to the community, get accepted to one of the best institutions in the world, and ensure a better future for our children.”

Afterward, in an interview with The Varsity, Nguyen went into greater detail as to her motivations for attending and speaking at the march.

“Seeing the change from the Doug Ford government, seeing that students will no longer have free tuition, as well as student unions, student groups, and student newspapers being optional fees, I feel outraged because I feel that this is like a direct attack on students from minorities and students from low-income families,” she explained.

Riches dubbed the reaction to Ford’s cuts ‘the student movement.’

“We march for low-income students. We march for international students. We march for all students, and we march because education should not be gatekept by financial means. And we will not stop marching,” said Riches. “Make yourselves heard, and together, let’s show this Ontario government what ‘For the Students’ really means,” he proclaimed, to a chorus of cheers.

A number of MPPs from the New Democratic Party took to the stage to voice their support for Ontario students.

Marit Stiles, MPP for Davenport, spoke on the effects that the changes to OSAP might have on the student population.

“People are graduating with mountains of debt, and that means putting off important life milestones for years… Ontario’s economy suffers, while you put off buying a home or starting a family because all your income is going back to the government or the banks.”

While the remarks made by Stiles were met with cheers and applause, the crowd was split when members of the Liberal caucus went up to speak.

Marie-France Lalonde, MPP for Orleans, the first speaker from the Liberal Party, struggled to make herself heard over chants of “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”

Former Liberal MPP Yvan Baker tried to turn the attention back onto Ford, saying, “If we don’t stop Doug Ford, he will cut access to postsecondary education… So I congratulate you for being here. Let’s get out there. Let’s stop Doug Ford and let’s save OSAP.”

While his comments were met with cheers from parts of the crowd, booing and chanting persisted from others.

These chants were primarily led by members of Socialist Fightback, a Marxist organization with chapters in numerous Ontario universities. Marco La Grotta, an organizer and editor of the Fightback magazine, voiced his discontent with the Liberal Party on the issue of education.

“Well, the fact of the matter is that the increase in tuition, that happened under the Liberals. I mean, it’s skyrocketed over the last few years, the last few decades. And the Liberals were just as much responsible for that as the Tories are. So I honestly don’t believe that the Liberals are friends to students.”

La Grotta and Socialist Fightback were at the protest to stand in solidarity with working-class students and to encourage protesters to join a student strike. “What we really need is for a student strike, similar to what you saw in Québec in 2012. Really we need to use the leverage and power we have in order to force this government to back off.”

Students march through Toronto protesting OSAP cuts, changes to non-tuition fees

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, protesters fight Ford government changes

Students march through Toronto protesting OSAP cuts, changes to non-tuition fees

Thousands of students chanted “Fuck Doug Ford” as they marched through the snow from Yonge-Dundas Square to Queen’s Park on Friday, January 25, protesting the provincial government’s recently announced changes to postsecondary education.

The march, which was organized by student groups and labour unions — including the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) and the Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) — amassed in front of the Ontario legislature building amid neon posters and chants, including, “The students united will never be defeated.”

The changes announced by the Ford government on January 17 would reduce domestic tuition rates by 10 per cent, eliminate the six-month interest-free grace period on Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) loans, shift provincial funding for students from mainly grant-based to loan-based, and make certain student incidental fees optional in an opt-out system.

Students join from across the province to protest

Speakers emphasized the diversity of the students in attendance, who came from all over the province to protest both their personal concerns over the Ford government’s plan and their overarching concerns for student life at colleges and universities.

Among them, U of T students echoed the anger of all students at the protest. Max Xi, a computer science, psychology, and linguistics student at U of T, attended the rally because he believes that student leadership can build a more vibrant campus, also saying that the mental health resources that could be cut have helped him in university.

Xi believes that the changes to student groups and student life will “further worsen the… atmosphere of U of T as a very isolating and overly academic… depressing place.”

For criminology and sociolegal studies student Allie McMillan, the 10 per cent cut to domestic tuition is the most damaging of the announced changes as it “completely disregards accessibility and equity.”

“I think by making the 10 per cent cut, [Ford] is fully just proving that he only cares about the upper class and those who are already able to attain an education without the help of the government,” she said.

Political science student Hamid Mohamed said that, as a recipient of OSAP grants and someone directly impacted by the changes to the grant and loan structure, he is protesting “because [Ford] hasn’t consulted with us and it affects the very livelihood of our campus institutions.”

He added that, in particular, student unions are a necessary check on the university administration and they are now at risk of having their funding cut.

Andrew Gallant, a political science, criminology, and sociology student, believes that the announced changes are anti-democratic.

“It doesn’t make any sense. I do understand why these sorts of cuts have to be made, but I think that the way that they have been implemented has been poor,” he said.

Speakers rally students, decry Ford government changes

“They have woken up a monster,” said Felipe Nagata, President of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union and incoming Chairperson of the CFS–O. Nagata led the chants at the front of the march and also gave a speech at Queen’s Park while surrounded by a mass of students.

“We’re not going to stop until free tuition is here, we’re not going to stop until education is accessible, and we’re not going to stop until every single student and every single person has access to education regardless of their gender or their race or their background or their abilities,” said Nagata.

Jacob Landau, the Director of Operations for March for Our Education and a political science student at U of T, was the first person to speak at Queen’s Park. March for Our Education is a student advocacy group that was created last year in protest of Ford’s policies.

Landau said that the issues uniting the protesters transcend party lines, as evidenced by the diverse political affiliations of the speakers at the rally. “They all know that it is not a political issue. This is about education. This is about our kids, and this is about our future as a province,” he said.

Chair of CUPE 3902 Jess Taylor — the labour union representing contract academic workers at U of T — also spoke on stage at Queen’s Park, saying, “It’s not just our academic workers, it’s also our support workers, our service workers. Everybody working and studying on campus across Ontario. Many of our members rely on OSAP to get their education.”

Nour Alideeb, the outgoing CFS–O Chairperson and a part-time sixth-year student at UTM studying economics, biology, and women and gender studies, heralded the need for a defence of student democracy against the changes.

“The announcements we heard last week are nothing short of an attack on students. Student democracy is under attack because this government is afraid of us,” said Alideeb. “We are the watchdogs. We are the ones that hold this government and our local administrations accountable.”

Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath, the Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Leader of the Official Opposition in Ontario, solidified her support for the student movement at the rally as she stood on stage flanked by local NDP MPPs.

Smiling as the crowd broke out into “Fuck Doug Ford” chants, she jokingly chastised the protesters for using “unparliamentary language,” but said that she understood where the students were coming from.

“I am here to say that New Democrats are standing with you and against Doug Ford. And we are here to say no to charging more interest on student loans. No to his callous cuts to OSAP. And hell no to his attacks on student unions.”

Alideeb, in an interview with The Varsity, also emphasized free postsecondary education as the ultimate goal for accessible education.

“The [CFS] has, since its existence in 1981, advocated for free and accessible postsecondary education… I think the first thing we need to prioritize is low-income students, and then make our way to ensure that everyone has free postsecondary education,” she said.

Crysta Montiel, a third-year student student studying philosophy at U of T who organized the march along with another student, channelled similar ideas in her speech.

“Under the Conservative government, post-grads will be straddled with mountains of accumulated debt,” she said. “It’s a paradox because we’re unable to find a job to pay it all. And the only way to break the cycle is to have free education for all.”

In Photos: Students gather in Queen’s Park to protest cuts to OSAP, university funding

The emergency rally was held on January 18

In Photos: Students gather in Queen’s Park to protest cuts to OSAP, university funding

In Photos: Anti-Bannon protests outside November’s Munk Debate

In Photos: Anti-Bannon protests outside November’s Munk Debate