As resistance to the new Doug Ford Conservative government in Ontario grows, one of the most inspiring shows of defiance thus far was the student walkout on Friday September 21. With strong support from his social conservative base, Ford has announced plans to repeal the new sex education curriculum implemented by the previous Liberal government in 2015. It was the first revamp of the curriculum since 1998, and included a number of progressive features, such as discussion of consent, trans issues, and same sex relationships. Ford also terminated plans to update Ontario’s curriculum with indigenous content. The government’s actions inspired some 40,000 students across the province to walk out of classes – in the largest such student walkout since the conservative government of Mike Harris in the 1990s – in protest.
New Socialist spoke with one of the organizers, Amina Vance. Amina is 17 and in grade 12 at Western Technical Commercial School in Toronto.
Why did you and others decide to organize this walkout? And why a walkout instead of some other type of protest?
The walkout was called by two student organizers, Rayne Fisher-Quann and Indygo Arscott, at the end of the summer. There have been many rallies and marches on this issue so I think it was a really good choice to branch out to a walkout. It was much more accessible of a protest for people who may not consider themselves political and it was able to reach more people as organizers at each school used the tactics that would work in their specific environment. This movement was inspired in particular by the walkouts and March for Our Lives project organized by students in the USA post the Parkland high school shooting.
There were walkouts in different parts of Toronto and several different cities. How did you coordinate with other organizers?
The majority of the coordinating was done on Instagram. Each school had its own Instagram page and the main provincial organizers created a group chat where we could all communicate. Through this we shared graphics and talked through challenges that each school was facing. It really helped especially when it came to facing harassment as each organizer felt less alone and we were able to mass report and block harassers.
We had people flooding our Instagram page with negative comments, as well someone made an anti-walkout page. It was no trouble for us to deal with them, as all we had to do was delete comments and they mostly went away. Other schools, especially those in conservative areas, had it much worse. We know people who faced possible counter-protests and threats. As far as I know everyone was able to deal with it and keep themselves safe. It was really good to have that supportive community of other organizers.
Why do you think the walkout attracted so many young people to participate, probably many of whom had never been part of a protest before? Were you expecting as many people to participate as did?
I spent a lot of time in the last few weeks just walking around and spotting people who looked high school age to talk about the walkout. I did this mostly while flyering and postering, sometimes in a group and sometimes alone. Aside from the people who were immediately on board the majority of the people that I talked to didn’t have much of a knowledge of the issues other than a vague sense of having heard something was happening with sex ed or that Ford was generally a bad guy. Once they heard that LGBTQ education, consent education, and Indigenous education were under attack people overwhelmingly responded with a clear understanding of why those things were important. People honestly just didn’t know about the issues or didn’t know that there was anything they could do. I talked to so many people with a passion for the issues who had nowhere to put their energy. Even people who were supportive and helping with the walkout were shocked when they saw Global News interviewing us, shocked to see our school on TV. It’s a huge disconnect, students have been conditioned to believe they have no power as that makes them easier to deal with. And even relatively tame movements like this begin to flip that on its head.
Looking at photos of the rallies, participants look both defiant and festive. How would you describe the mood on the day?
The best moment of the walkout was at the beginning when my co-organizer, Thea Baines, and I, along with a few people who had helped us prepare, started at the top back of the school and at 1pm turned on our megaphones and started chanting. Just walking through the school that we’d been in as students, mostly without power, for so long and taking up space with our beliefs and being joined on mass by other students was incredible. It’s a male-dominated school, and the culture is very apathetic. To take up that space as a group of young women organizers was intense and a real change. The most wonderful part about that was that while we chanted it became clear that this was the first time almost all the students participating had seen something like this. I could tell because no one knew the chants but people caught on so quickly and there was so much passion and momentum.
My friend Ben Doll from the Student School, an alternative school attached to Western, who we organized with, really stepped up during the walkout. He led people in chanting and spoke to the crowd with such intensity. He admitted to me a few days later that our walkout was the first big rally he had been at and it really blew me away. What I saw over and over was that people, despite it being their very first time, whether it was chanting, talking to press, holding a banner, or giving a speech for the first time, knew what to do and how to support each other.
What was the support like from teachers?
We weren’t in a position to get official support from teachers and administrators but I know that we had some individuals that were with us. This was a protest by students for students and that was really part of the beauty of it. For the most part teachers did exactly what we needed, stood back and let us take action.
There was a lot of energy at the rallies and clearly some momentum. What might be next in this battle?
There was a follow up rally on Sunday Sept 23rd at Queens Park, multiple lawsuits against Ford that students are now getting involved with, and huge petitions. Some schools have taken this opportunity to fundraise, either for their own GSA, the 519 [a community centre in Toronto that serves the LGBTQ community – eds.], or other programs helping these causes. We’ve built a network of dedicated students at almost 100 schools in Ontario and I’m really excited to see where we can take this. Sadly in a way I think it’s understood that we’ll have to be reactive with this kid of administration, but it’s comforting to know that we’re in a much better position to fight whatever is coming down the pipe than we were a few weeks ago. We know that silence is complacency and we need everyone to know that we the students do not consent. So you haven’t seen the last of us.