Facades, Failures, and Futility: Searching for Student Voice in Ontario

By: Danté Fosterdelmundo

The free and unencumbered expression of student voice in regards to their learning is vital for any education system. In order to create a truly equitable and inclusive learning environment, students must be able to have a recognizable influence and impact on the policies and politics of their schooling.

Core decisions related to a student’s education such as policy directions, curriculum content, and funding levels are often made with little student input. Such factors have a drastic impact on schooling as a whole. In order to incorporate learners into the politics behind their education, many changes must be made. At the moment, there are very few means by which students can be heard.

There are 72 school boards in Ontario. They consist of an elected group of trustees who represent parents and taxpayers. Responsible for budgeting, local policy, and locations of schools, school boards are an integral cog within the machine of Ontario’s public education.

The Education Act further outlines the procedures of school boards. One of them is the student trustee, where a student is elected by their peers to act as a liaison for the board on behalf of their peers. I have been to many local elections for student trustees as an observer, and every candidate was beyond qualified for their role. All of them proved to the voting body that they are passionate student leaders in and outside of their school. And yet, after seeing 3 years of cycling trustees, the odds always looked stacked against the student trustee when it comes to these vital board decisions.

The amount of adult trustees varies between boards. London’s secular school board, responsible for over 78,000 students, has 13 adult trustees representing taxpayers. The Toronto District School Board oversees over 240,000 students and is headed by 22 adult trustees. Choosing the number of trustees is based on a combination of total board area and total population within their jurisdiction.

For the student trustee, no such system exists. Three is the maximum, with two as the minimum. Though student trustees are expected to represent every peer within their board, having the same number of trustees represent different sizes of school boards creates an obvious disparity and inherent power imbalance between the student and the board in which their education is dictated. More expansive and thus diverse boards, such as Hamilton-Wentworth and Toronto, will find it apparent that many student perspectives will be left behind. It is ludicrous to expect 3 students at most to adequately represent over 100 000 students.

This becomes even more concerning as many boards have a mix of rural and urban schools. The Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) for instance spans over 20 000 kilometres with 29 secondary schools and 132 elementary schools. There exist rampant socioeconomic inequalities and a diversity of races between these schools. Geographical differences also have to be factored in as schools have to accommodate. And yet, for the past 3 years, two urban, generally upper-middle class schools have won the seats.

The expectation of a student trustee is to give a student perspective on the board. However, they are non-voting members. The most a student trustee can do is vote on a non-binding motion, basically, their vote doesn’t count. The student trustees on the board can talk and “suggest” on behalf of all students. However, as their word is not backed by a vote, why would an adult trustee care about the student’s voice? The system is designed to give a platform to students through their student trustee, however, when this platform is not even backed by even a single vote, the student trustee becomes nothing more than a figurehead.

Last April, the Halton Catholic District School Board (HDCSB) in a highly controversial vote demonstrated a striking difference between adult trustees and the students they manage.

A motion was pushed forward by student trustee Kirsten Kelly asking pride flags to be waved all at HCDSB schools. The meeting discussing this motion lasted over 4 hours and was repeatedly marked with bureaucratic delays and interruptions. Ultimately, the majority of the board rejected the motion.

In response, all 9 high schools on the board had their student councils express support for their LGBTQ+ peers on social media. Posts ranged from pride flags, modifying their own school logo with pride colours, and statements welcoming those of LGBTQ+ backgrounds.

The board did not rectify their vote or acknowledge the clear response to their vote from students. Student trustees are supposed to be the voice on the board. However, the education system barely empowers the student through the trustee, and it has led to gaps between the student and the board.

There comes a point in which students feel compelled to yell their grievances on the streets. Avenues in which student voices can be heard are often limited and bogged down by bureaucracy. When a policy or a government egregiously disregards student input in a push for radical changes to their schools, it is inevitable that protests will occur.

In 2019, the Ontario government announced plans for education cuts and mandatory e-learning courses. Across the province, thousands of students marched out of school on April 4th against the changes.

The organization was province-wide, and I was the lead organizer for my school’s protest. I saw clear unity among the youth of Ontario, as I not only talked to my peers but with other organizers from neighbouring cities about our distaste for the policies. It felt imperative to ensure we were heard and to make clear that students won’t roll over when something as vital as our education is being threatened.

Our voices were pretty much ignored, regardless.

Sure, it made the news. How did the provincial government respond? The Premier decried the students as being manipulated by teacher’s unions. The grievances publicly expressed by every student who marched side-by-side were barely acknowledged by the Ontario government.

This is clearly ridiculous. Student’s voices are cast aside when our interests do not align with those in power. What are we supposed to do when our government refuses to listen? We can talk to our board but we get outnumbered and disempowered. We tried protesting and we got belittled. We can’t vote, can’t even have our representatives on our own school board vote the way we want, or in some cases, our local Members of Parliament refuse to listen to us.

Where does this leave us then?

It is clear those in power treat the most important stakeholder in education, students, as secondary. There still exist numerous problems within our schools, from mental health, inequality, and the current online learning situation. Every student you’ll ask can tell you all about it either from their personal experiences or their peers. As long as our voices are not heard, these issues will likely continue for generations.

Even though it seems futile, we need to continue the push for our voices to be heard even in the most unconquerable conditions. Developing our unified voice among Ontario students is critical to give our generation identity. The school leaders who fight for their peers today will continue to advocate for the students of the next generation as they will hold positions as elected adult trustees, MPs and premiers.

Please note that this blog post represents the opinions of Danté Fosterdelmundo and is not representative of the official stance of the FCSS-FESC. The intent of this article is not to criticize a particular organization but rather to shed light on issues facing student voice.

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FCSS-FESC Team

Since 2012, the FCSS-FESC has strived to provide Canadian secondary school students in and CÉGEPs the tools they need to succeed in post-secondary life.