Busloads of protesters descended on Queen’s Park on Thursday to rally against changes to the province’s autism program — with families coming from Ottawa, Sudbury and Windsor.
With a controversial new program starting April 1, protesters wanted to turn up the heat on the Ford government.
In a statement released by education workers just before the protest began, five unions — representing teachers, early childhood educators and support staff — implored the government to “put the needs of children first” and “rethink its rash decision-making on the Ontario Autism Program.”
As protesters outside began chanting, inside the legislature the opposition NDP grilled Ford on what Leader Andrea Horwath called an “absolute disaster” of a plan.
“No one believes in this autism program,” said New Democrat MPP Monique Taylor, adding “parents have mobilized across the province to fight back . . . this government has failed every step of the way.”
Laura Kirby-McIntosh of the Ontario Autism Coalition said parents “fought the Liberals when they cut off treatment at age 6, and then later at age 5, and now we’re protesting against the Conservatives,” adding “this is not a partisan issue.”
Parents and school boards have been warning that public schools are not ready for an influx of students seeking therapies their families can no longer afford under the revamped system, and many are asking the government to put a pause on the changes.
The York Region District School Board wrote to both Education Minister Lisa Thompson and Lisa MacLeod, minister for children community and social services, saying the situation — combined with a provincial directive to freeze hiring — “presents some obvious and consequential challenges in providing essential services for children about to undertake a significant transition.”
Boards are also looking to the government for numbers on how many children to expect. Without that information, it will be “difficult to prepare for the increase in enrolment and attendance and ensure we have the resources in place,” said the letter from chair Corrie McBain.
“. . . In light of these difficulties, we are requesting that the government reconsider its implementation plan to ensure that children are not adversely affected by these changes.”
Regional service providers are also expressing concern, including Kinark, Surrey Place and Thames Valley Children’s Centre.
MacLeod has said the government’s priority is to clear the therapy wait list of 23,000 children in the next 18 months, creating a system where families can choose the services they want.
Parents will be eligible for up to $20,000 a year for children under 6 — with a lifetime maximum of $140,000. Children older than that can access up to $5,000 a year up to age 18, to a lifetime maximum of $55,000.
However, children, with severe needs can require up to $80,000 a year in therapy.
When asked Wednesday by New Democrat MPP Monique Taylor about the calls to hold off on the changes, MacLeod said “of course, there is a diversity of opinions, whether it’s parents, whether it is service providers, whether it’s those who have lived experience with autism.
“But I will tell you, the opinion of this government is that we are going to clear the wait-list of 23,000 children, or three out of four children in Ontario.”
She later told reporters that she and her aides would not attend the protest because of concerns about their personal safety.
Kirby-McIntosh said her advocacy group has been planning the rally with a number of supporters since the changes were announced last month.
“Ford promised us that under his government we would never have to go back onto the lawn of Queen’s Park (to protest.) He said he would be with us 1,000 per cent,” Kirby-McIntosh said. “He lied. He has completely abandoned us. The betrayal is phenomenal.”
As for schools, Thompson, speaking to reporters Wednesday at Queen’s Park, said her ministry is working with boards to help with the transition to the new system come April 1, when an influx of students into the public system is expected given the new funding scheme will see many families unable to continue to afford behavioural therapies.
The $321 million for autism services pledged by the Ford government is the same amount the previous Liberal government budgeted for this fiscal year.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy