Monique Taylor was in town Wednesday night and she was taking names.
The MPP for Hamilton Mountain and the Official Opposition critic for children and youth services was at the Orillia Community Church to take part in a town hall regarding the province’s changes to autism funding.
And she was literally taking names — names of Progressive Conservative MPPs who, according to constituents, weren’t responding to their concerns or were replying with “cut-and-paste” emails.
“Give me their names. I’ll poke at them steadily. That’s my job,” Taylor told the audience of about 30. “They were elected by their communities to serve, not to rule.”
Taylor, who just finished an autism town hall tour of northern Ontario, received an earful from her Orillia audience, including Dorothy Cook.
Cook and her husband have been foster parents to many kids with special needs over the years.
With her at Wednesday’s meeting was her 32-year-old son, who has autism. When she adopted him at age eight, he was non-verbal. That’s not the case anymore.
“If it hadn’t been for the programs, the OT (occupational therapy), he wouldn’t be doing as well as he’s doing now,” she said.
Clearly frustrated about changes to the Ontario Autism Program, Cook saw it as a step backward.
“What’s going to happen? Special schools again? Reopen the HRC (Huronia Regional Centre)?” she asked. “I am so pissed off.”
“Not on my watch,” Taylor responded.
The PCs’ initial plan was to introduce a funding model based on age and income. Parents protested relentlessly, and the province later announced it would abandon income testing and extend existing government-funded therapy by six months while it launches a consultation process.
Taylor also heard concerns about the province’s education changes and how they will affect kids on the autism spectrum.
The government has announced an increase in average class sizes, and it will provide additional funding to train teachers to support students on the spectrum. At the same time, boards are facing cuts to teaching staff.
“Our classrooms and our schools are in crisis … because there are not enough supports for our students to receive in our classrooms,” said a local elementary school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.
She said her school recently lost two-and-a-half teaching positions as well as funding for its one full-time special-education teacher.
Another teacher, who, fearing for her job, also wanted to remain anonymous, was in tears as she shared her concerns for the future of special-needs students’ education. She said four of the 20 students in her class have autism and 10 have individual education plans.
“We’re all in it together because it’s all about the kids,” she said.
Holly Mei has a nine-year-old son on the spectrum. Diagnosed at six, he was put on various wait lists and, last year, started to receive in-school help from a therapist.
Mei was told there was no deadline to stop receiving therapy under the Ontario Autism Program. Now she worries the funding will be cut.
“I’m terrified about what that means,” Mei said through tears. “I’m worried that my kid’s going to slip through the cracks.”
The province had stated no teachers would be laid off, that it would take an “attrition-based approach” by not filling teacher vacancies.
“They can call it attrition. They can call it what they like. It’s our vulnerable children who are going to suffer,” Taylor said. “I can’t fathom what their end game is.”
Brant Mawdsley is a high-functioning adult with autism. He thinks the government should look elsewhere for savings.
“If the premier is going to cut something, he should cut the government’s pay,” Mawdsley said.
He issued a rallying cry to those in attendance to not give up the fight.
“Together, we can be the David to Doug Ford’s Goliath,” he said.
A petition in protest of the autism changes was circulated at Wednesday’s meeting. Taylor said she would deliver it to Queen’s Park.