Local Students Join Province-Wide Walkouts

Students across Renfrew County joined thousands of others across Ontario on Thursday, and walked out of class to protest provincial cuts and changes in the education system. 

Walkouts happened at more than a dozen Renfrew County schools including Bishop Smith Catholic High School and Fellowes High School in Pembroke.  

Fellowes Grade 9 student Zoe Etches, who organized the protest at her school, says the government's planned changes, including larger class sizes and mandatory online courses, will leave students like her at a disadvantage.

"That is going to put a lot of stress on teachers, trying to help us with our e-learning as well as our larger class sizes, so they're going to have a lot of weight on their shoulders, and we're going to feel less important", Etches told Star 96.7 as her fellow students protested along Bell Street, right across from the Fellowes school campus.

She added that despite hearing some criticism from adults, many students are serious about the cause.

"A lot of older people think, oh they don't care and they're caught up in social media.  Well, we actually want futures for ourselves", Etches said.

Across town at Bishop Smith Catholic High School, several students walked to nearby Mary Street, holding their signs up and chanting alongside the busy road.

They chanted "stand up, fight back", and "students say no".

But not all Bishop students left school property for the protest.

Grade 11 student Jaelin Hamel, who organized an earlier assembly inside her school with the support of school leadership, was part of a small group of students who walked out briefly on school property to make their point, and then returned to class.

"We're voicing our opinion on how education is so important for us, so why would we skip the full period", Hamel told Star 96.7.

"We're just going to come outside, prove our point, and then go back in, go back to class.  We don't want to miss any classes."

Bishop Grade 11 student Grant Hurley echoed concerns about mandatory online e-learning courses, larger class sizes, program cuts, and the potential loss of thousands of teaching positions province-wide.

"It's to show that we want our education to be more beneficial for us and more effficient for us", he said.

No Problems Reported

The school boards did not sanction the walkout.

The Renfrew County District School Board says students at 7 of the 11 schools in its board who took part in the walkout moved their demonstrations off school property.

Board spokesperson Jonathan Laderoute says no problems were reported and they're happy with how things played out.

Fellowes Principal Amy Johnson says students made their point in an orderly way.

"It was peaceful, it was safe, it was well organized", Johnson told Star 96.7.

"My main concern for anything like this is student safety, and really Zoe Etches, the student leader, worked very well with the students and was able to ensure it was going to be a safe and peaceful protest.  It's also really good from my perspective to see the civic engagement aspect of it", Johnson added.

Students who did not return to class were marked absent.

Government Reaction

At Queen's Park on Thursday, the Ontario government accused teachers unions of being a driving force behind the walkouts by condoning them. 

Education Minister Lisa Thompson characterized the walkouts as “political stunts” and criticized unions for not discouraging them.     

"On a day when we reached out to begin good-faith consultations with Ontario's teachers, we instead are seeing Ontario teachers' unions condoning a student walkout at schools across the province,'' Thompson said in a statement.

"Our government will not be distracted from making the necessary reforms Ontario needs", Thompson added.

However, the head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, Harvey Bischof, says they had nothing to do with the protest, but supported the students. 

"The students didn't need, want or ask for our help,'' he said.

"We didn't offer or provide any help whatsoever. The premier and the minister should be embarrassed about making another fact-free claim.''

Premier Doug Ford says the reforms are necessary to improve the education system and education outcomes. 

"We know that the Grade 6 students, 50 per cent of them are failing math,'' he said.

"Maybe they should keep them in the classroom to teach them more math.''

Ford accused ``union bosses'' Thursday of telling both teachers and students what to do when it came to the walkouts. Teachers have a responsibility to parents to keep students in the classroom, he added.

The government has said there will be no involuntary job losses as a result of the cuts.