Photos & story by Mark Clairmont | MuskokaTODAY.com
GRAVENHURST — A noisy student protest against education cuts today should worry Doug Ford as much for the sound of honking horns as the shouts of young activist teens who “worry” about their future in Ontario.
More than 100 Gravenhurst High School “walkouts” paraded two blocks up to the main street to be seen and heard for 45 minutes in front of the Opera House.
They were doing their part in a province-wide protest that saw BMLSS students march on MPP Norm Miller’s downtown Bracebridge constituency office.
In Huntsville, Parry Sound and Almaguin, similar scenes played out on a sunny, but cool spring Thursday, April 4, afternoon.
With chants of “Ford wants cuts — students say no,” and “Education is a right. We will not give up the fight.” And signs that read “We want a say” and “We want outcomes, not income$” the GHS students loudly cheered themselves.
And almost all of the drivers who slowed to look showed support by putting their hands on their horns.
Sage van Kooten, one of the student organizers, was “very happy” with the turnout — which was between one in three or one in four kids in the student body of about 350. She thanked the students and said she was proud of them for turning out in such large numbers.
She said it came together rather quickly after she attended a Forum for Young Canadians conference last week, where the class walkouts were widely talked about.
“That hugely inspired me,” she said while rallying her troops.
So she came home and signed up her school online, forming an instant Instagram site.
Van Kooten, a Grade 10 student whose parents are teachers at GHS and Gravenhurst Public School, carried a large black and white sign that succinctly read: “Don’t go making cuts to our education, we are the next generation, and will will be leading the nation.”
She was among a dozen male and female students who spoke up and spoke out.
They shared around a small blue megaphone and took turns telling schoolmates that the PC government cuts mean fewer teachers and programs like music, cuts to tech and arts, and OSAP funding.
It’s a particular concern for small school, with an arts bent and few resources and educational tools to begin with — and that’s just on the teaching side of the equation.
Several showed no reservations about getting up before their peers to stir them up with rousing chants and heartfelt stories.
“It worries me,” said Grade 11 student Grace Stein, who wants to go on to study auto marketing and is also concerned for her Grade 7 brother, who wants to take auto body in two years.
Grade 10 student Lilly Kersnik, another organizer (along with Kiara Collins — victory lap), also expressed concern for her brother about the four mandatory online courses.
She said he can’t learn easily on his own and needs a classroom setting with a teacher to help him one-on-one.
Alesha Graydon, 17, a Grade 11 student, said OSAP changes make it difficult for those with large families to get an advanced education.
She plans medical studies.
Others, like Morgan Douglas, a Grade 11 student, said increased class sizes won’t be good.
Students said some teachers they noticed earlier in the day wore at least a piece of black clothing, the recommend rally colour, in solidarity. Although, most students didn’t.
Friends Tory Sheppard and Nicole Trott said their focus was on how slashing funding would affect the student athletes who are on the girls hockey team.
“If you take that away, some kids don’t have local leagues to play in.”
The two are lucky, they’re teammates on the Orillia Huskies hockey team.
But for other kids, school sports are all they have left. It’s their only athletic avenue.
The 15-year-olds added that losing teachers (students think it could be six to eight among the more than two dozen or so faculty) would be devastating for the students who consider some teachers “like family.”
“They help the students, not just with their classes, but in life, too,” said Trott.
They cited their English and French teachers, who also coach boys and girls basketball, and who helped free them from a difficult group of bully-type students.
For some of the students this was their first time demonstrating, but they all acted and sounded like already-seasoned protesters, smiling, carrying signs and screaming on demand.
Mike and Dave, who asked that their last names not be used, held up a sign with Ford’s picture.
Dave, who said it was his first foray in civic unrest, said the sign represents his three protest priorities: specialized school priorities, free tuition and Indigenous culture funding cuts.
Hailey Speicher, who volunteers as a co-op student in her school and at the GPS kindergarten next door, was teary-eyed when she spoke after about the loss of educational assistants for those students.
She said she has seen so many children begin to grow up and do so well, noting in particular kids on the autism spectrum.
“It’s a big mistake. Who is going to speak for them. That’s why I’m here, advocating for them.”
She plans to be a youth and child care worker one day.
Grade 12 student Kaitlyn Schofield, too, questioned the Ford cuts.
She’s doing OK in school and says her sister is “doing fine with the education she got at GHS.”
The students returned to classes in time for their final fourth period, after being marked as absent, and having learned a valuable life lesson they may not have gotten had they not walked out of period three.
Two police cars were seen circling the block — with one momentarily pulling over at the protest site — before the peaceful demonstration.
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