So you want to talk to the minister of education, Elizabeth Witmer.It's not just a question of putting up your hand. The minister is a busy person, so you need an important issue.
Our children's advocacy group, a collection of properly groomed volunteers including community workers, lawyers and students, wanted to talk to the minister about children being kept out of school contrary to the Education Act. She's responsible for this law, so she would be interested, we figured. And some years ago Ontario ratified an international agreement promising to respect every child's right to go to school. Surely Ms. Witmer wouldn't want to break a promise to a child.
We were polite in our approach. After all, making sure kids are in school is not a radical view -- it's the law for anyone between six and 16. And since 1993 it's also been the law for kids we represent, ones whose parents are in Canada with undetermined or no immigration status. Ontario's Education Act is based on the simple idea that children should not be blamed for their parents' poor relationship with the Immigration Department.
The U.S. Supreme Court reached the same conclusion 20 years ago, saying it could find no intelligent reason for keeping kids out of school and creating a "subclass of illiterates.'
But some boards of ed in the province are not allowing these children to attend class. Our letter to the minister detailing this prompted no response, and hundreds of concerned citizens continued to send their own letters. This also failed to motivate the minister.
In June of this year, we tried to catch Witmer's eye by waving banners at a rally on the front lawn of the legislature. We don't have bandanas or ski goggles, so we brought along a marimba band to let the minister know we were in tune with the law while school board officials were not. Security staff at Queen's Park swayed their hips to the beat of our music and said we were welcome any time. Witmer's praise was more muted -- in fact, she didn't respond. Maybe she doesn't like marimbas.
We also collected 1,200 signatures on a petition. She replied to us indirectly via a note to the MPP who gave her the petition, saying everyone must obey the law. We hoped she would share this insight with the school boards that are violating this law. But we hoped in vain.
We weren't asking for a lot, just a little memo under the minister's letterhead directing school boards to comply with the Education Act. We first brought the matter to ministerial attention over three years ago. Then-minister David Johnson said we should work with the school boards. We did, with some success and lots of failure. Our experience shows that many boards have a short attention span about the law. Some school officials still think it's their job to hunt down people without status even though the Immigration Department isn't asking them to. Nor is the department suggesting that teaching children to read and write violates any federal law.
In Toronto, board of ed reps say changes to the Immigration Act last summer removed any ambiguities about their obligations. Christine Yee, head of the board's West End Reception Centre, which counsels immigrants, says the board now takes all these children. "We try to tell parents, any information is confidential. We're not going to share it with any government department.'
When NOW called ministry spokesperson Bruce Skeaff to ask why no memo has been issued, he explained that if a child is not admitted the issue is between the parents and the board. "It doesn't involve us. We don't need to remind boards of what's in the Education Act -- it's already in writing.'
In the meantime, a new school year has started and hundreds of children, including boys and girls as young as six, are again being kept out. In some cases, children have been trying to get into school for two and three years -- years they will remember for all the wrong reasons. While the minister was studiously ignoring us, and other children waited for the bell, these kids started another year hiding indoors at home to avoid obvious questions from curious neighbours.
We sent another letter to the minister -- more out of habit than hope -- asking for action or at least a chance to discuss the problem. There was no reply. We also contacted her assistant, the deputy minister. We phoned her office to confirm receipt of our letter. The DM is also a busy person, but we were assured she would get to our matter within 25 days. We waited a courteous month, then phoned. The DM's assistant looked but couldn't find our letter. She also said we could talk to someone in the finance department; she must have thought we were just lonely. We resent our letter instead of suggesting an auditor be dispatched to review their office procedures.
Again we received no reply. We suspect our letter ended up with the first missing letter, in a lost-letters file.
There may be another reason for the minister's decisions not to act. It's because she doesn't have to. Children whose parents lack status don't amount to much of a lobby group. And these parents aren't likely to look for the spotlight even if a basic right is being infringed. So it is simply a question of power: the minister has it, kids don't.
We had started optimistically. After all, a child's right to go to school is recognized around the world. Along the way we learned that the eight lanes of speeding traffic around Queen's Park are more than a symbolic barrier. But we still have hope. Maybe the minister reads the newspaper.