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Books

In my previous post I described how our public library is a vital city service and I voiced my concern about the 0% budget. The library (and every other city service) is being mandated to hit a 0% 2013 budget, which will result in service cuts (as laid out in this statement on the library’s website).

Please consider this important issue. Please get involved and contact City Council to let them know how you feel about the cuts to the London Public Library (and other services vital to our city) to reach a third 0% tax freeze this year. This page has a guide to the city’s wards and how to contact City Council, and below is the letter I have submitted to council. You’re welcome to use it as a template if you’d like to!

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To London City Council,

I write today to ask that as you shape our 2013 budget, you consider how much the public library means to Londoners. In 2011 (according to the library’s website), 3.2 million people visited a library location, 1.31 million people asked library staff for help finding information, 4.25 million items were borrowed, 192,000 people attended a program, 972,000 holds were placed on items, 567,000 uses of library computers were logged, and 4.5 million people visited the library website. Absolutely stunning numbers!

As well, they write that “London has the highest annual library use per capita in Ontario at 40.6 annual uses per capita (median use is 28.1), according to the most recent OMBI report. London has the lowest operating cost per use in Ontario at $1.27 per use, according to the most recent OMBI report. In a 2012 survey, overall public satisfaction with library service was at 97.9%. 96.3% of people surveyed felt that the Library gives good value for taxpayer dollar spent.”

Our public library is so much more than just the books on the shelves. Libraries are a gateway to early literacy, social programs, and continue to be one of the key community hubs for a city. Libraries are also important community centres, with classes for numerous social skills, job search portals, community lectures, research centres, and much more. In London, we’re fortunate to have a central library that includes a community lecture and performance hall, as well as easy access to city and county records and archives.

I write to you to ask that you would consider this as you examine the hard budget decisions before you. I understand that you want to ensure that tax payer dollars are spent in the most efficient and appropriate ways possible, which is absolutely commendable. However, I’m concerned that without proper funding for our library as well as our public safety, transportation and community service programs, we will pay much more in the long run by running ineffective programs stretched beyond their means, failing to serve the people that rely on these services.

As you consider the public library and how important it is to our city, please also examine the overall cost the goal of 0% tax increase will have on our city. As we get into the budget process, London Public Library, London Transit Commission, London Community Foundation, Pillar Nonprofit Network and United Way London & Middlesex have all spoken out against the path to 0% and the cuts that will be necessary to reach the target this year. More organizations will likely join them as the budget process continues, and the cost that will be born by London’s most vulnerable.

Thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely,

Brian Gibson, Ward 2

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Thank you for taking the time to read this, and for considering this important issue. The budget process impacts us all, and the decisions we make now will impact our city for years to come. The great thing is that there are many ways to get involved!

There are several public participation meetings over the next two months, culminating in the final budget approval February 28th. The link has all the important dates, and all sessions will be streamed live. These are a terrific opportunity to see Council in action and to see first hand the decisions they’re making on the budget. Today the first public participation meeting starts at City Hall at 4pm, with many community groups and organizations slated to speak to the budget and the impact it will have.

You can  also e-mail, Facebook, call (Financial Planning @ 519-661-4638) and Tweet (@CityofLdnOnt) to the City budget teams with your ideas. If you’re on Twitter, you can also use the hashtag #LdnBudget13 to post your thoughts.

Please get involved London, and have your say!

Books

I’ve always loved books.

I feel like I almost grew up in the library of my home town of Wiarton. My mom was one of the librarians there, and I spent long afternoons buried behind the shelves, amazed that (as it seemed to me at the time) all of human knowledge was available to me there. My time there helped foster an enduring appreciation for books and reading, and a thirst for knowledge and further learning and discovery.

But libraries are so much more than books. Libraries are a gateway to early literacy, social programs, and continue to be one of the key community hubs for a city. Libraries are also important community centres, with classes for numerous social skills, job search portals, community lectures, research centres, and much more. In London, we’re fortunate to have a central library that includes a community lecture and performance hall, as well as easy access to city and county records and archives.

As we discuss the city budget, and where to place our resources as the city struggles with stubbornly high unemployment levels, it may seem like an old-fashioned, bricks, mortar and paper institution like the library would be an easy place to find cuts. For sure, with the advent of the internet, many organizations and businesses have struggled to keep up. Businesses including major music and video rental stores have closed, unable to compete as their services became increasingly available online.

Despite this, London’s library system is only seeing both its physical and digital attendance growing. The numbers the library lists on its website show how indispensable a service it provides to our community. The library took the bold step of actually posting a news release to their website to outline how busy they have been, and how a third straight 0% would impact them. The release states that in 2011:

  • 3.2 million people visited a library location
  • 1.31 million people asked our staff for help finding information, materials and other resources
  • 4.25 million items were borrowed
  • 192,000 people attended a program, including those for newcomers, teens, job-seekers, new parents, seniors and those looking to connect with all this city has to offer
  • 972,000 holds were placed on items
  • 567,000 uses of our public computers were logged, many by those without access to the Internet or a computer in their home
  • 4.5 million people visited our website

As well, this opinion piece by LFP’s Ian Gillespie shares more good news:

According to a recent report from the Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative (OMBI), London has the highest annual library use per capita in Ontario at 40.6 annual uses per person (the median use is 28.1).

And with an annual budget of about $19.5 million, London’s libraries boast the lowest operating cost per use in Ontario, at $1.27 per use, according to  OMBI.

More than half of all Londoners possess a library card, and in 2011 they used library services nearly 15 million times.

And those users were happy, too: A 2012 survey showed overall public satisfaction with library service was at a whopping 97.9%.

It seems stunning that despite this information, council is pressing for the library to find more ways to cut funding, without somehow harming service. This year, it just isn’t possible. There are many hard decisions in the 2013 London budget on this third year of the “Path to 0%”, as each year compounds the cuts of the last. This year, to achieve 0% the library warns that it will have to reduce service by reducing service hours in most locations, removing Sunday service entirely, and offering fewer items to borrow.

As I said, our community relies on the library services far beyond borrowing books. Many Londoners rely on the library services for their internet access, for job searching, for resume and job search advice, and for life skill training. If the library is required to meet a target of 0% by council, it will be one more way that 0% will cut services to Londoners most in need.

The London Public Library is only one of many community organizations speaking out, and I imagine the din will only rise as we get closer to the budget process. The London Community Foundation posted this letter on their website, also outlining the impact a third straight budget of 0% will have. They state:

London Community Foundation has traditionally preferred to influence public policy with a light, often unseen hand. This year we have joined Pillar Nonprofit Network and United Way London & Middlesex to collectively voice our concerns on the proposed City of London budget because we strongly agree that those who are most vulnerable will be disproportionately impacted by proposed changes and cuts.

Please, speak out to support our vital library system. My next post will be a letter to council, including information on how to contact your councillor as well as the entire City Council. Please reflect on what the library means to you, and how it helps those members of our society most in need. Contact your member of Council, and participate in the budget process to make sure your voice is heard!

There are many problems plaguing Ontario’s public school system. The economy remains fairly stagnant and the provincial government is struggling to find solutions and cut costs, while battling with a minority government situation. For years the London community of Lorne Ave. Public School has been threatened with the closing of their school as resources become tighter and the school has struggled with under-population.

This spring, the provincial legislature battled through passing Bill C-13, the Accepting Schools Act, to tackle bullying, specifically the chronic problem of the bullying of LGBT students (as described here). The major obstacle for the passing of the bill was the Progressive Conservatives and the Catholic School Board opposing it, with the board saying that they would be forced to accept “behavior” that is against their religious teachings.

Things have only become more complicated since then. Over the summer the provincial government struggled to create a new contract with the different teacher unions as their previous contracts were set to expire. The McGuinty government accused the unions of dragging their heels over the summer, creating speculation about whether the school year would start on time. Eventually the government called an emergency session of the legislature, with the threat that they would legislate a new deal if the unions wouldn’t agree to the terms they were willing to offer.

The provincial government has just passed the controversial Bill C-115, The Putting Students First Act. As this article states, “It imposes a wage freeze, the end of sick-day banks and a two-year strike ban, over the objections of unions representing most of the province’s teachers and school staff.” Understandably, the unions are furious, saying that their democratic right to collective bargaining is being taken out of their hands, and are vowing to protest this action.

In retaliation, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is urging teachers to reconsider staying after school for extra-curricular activities such as sports and clubs, drawing criticism that though their complaint is with government, they’re only punishing students with this action. As well, “ETFO also wants its members to take part in ‘McGuinty Mondays’ in which teachers and educational professionals refuse to take part in school or system-level meetings.”

All of these issues combine into a very volatile situation for the government, educators and students. The government struggles to cut the massive provincial deficit, including by cutting back teacher wages and benefits, yet they seem to be avoiding a difficult but important step to cutting the cost of our education system as well as ensuring it becomes fair for all Ontarians.

To me, there is a very real solution to these issues available: amalgamate the Catholic and public school boards into a single, united secular school board. It would combine all of the schools already owned by the province, make much more efficient use of all of the school resources including buildings, staff and teachers, and produce a truly fair public system.

So far, the Green Party of Ontario (GPO) is the only political party willing to amalgamate the Catholic and public school boards. Though I am traditionally a Liberal supporter I am completely ready to say this, and to say I wish other parties would take the GPO’s lead. GPO leader Mike Schreiner’s views seem very similar to my own; he sees it as an issue of fairness and fiscal responsibility. In his words:

It’s an issue of fairness. In today’s world, it’s unfair to fund one religion school system at the exclusion of all others. The second is fiscal responsibility. When we have a record provincial deficit and we’re talking about cuts to education and attacking teachers, to not look at ending wasteful duplication –  I think it’s irresponsible to not look at those savings.

Right now, we have a public school system that contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both by discriminating student entry and staff hiring by religion, and discriminating by sexuality. As well, in 1999 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Canada and the province of Ontario for violating equality provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In this 2005 report, the Committee restated its concerns and observed that Canada continued to fail to “adopt steps in order to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario.” Mr. Schreiner again:

I can’t think of any other place in society where we would allow two-thirds of our teachers to be denied employment opportunity. The Catholic board denies employment to non-catholic teachers and I don’t think you see that discrimination in hiring anywhere in Ontario especially by something that is funded by public tax dollars.

That doesn’t mean I believe we should completely eliminate religious teaching in our public schools. Far from it, I actually believe we should have more, as elective classes, and taught objectively instead of through a particular religious lens. As Mr. Schreiner says:

That doesn’t mean you can’t have religious education in the public system, you just can’t do it in a way that prioritizes one religion and excludes others.

This process would be a tremendous battle for our province, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. I hope that all parties will one day see this reality, and push to create a single, unified, fair and efficient school system.

As I wrote about in my previous post, “Why Bill C-13 Matters”, there has been a great deal of controversy in Ontario surrounding the Liberal government’s bill that would add new anti-bullying practices to Ontario public schools. The controversy has been specifically over Section 303.1, which states that every board will support pupils who want to start student organizations for people that are bullied, making specific mention of sexual orientation and organizations known as gay-straight alliances.

The Catholic School Board and members of the Ontatio Progressive Conservatives (PC) balked at this, with the Catholic School Board stating that this approach forces the Board schools to accept something they believe is against Catholic doctrine. They asked the government to remove any mention of gay-straight alliances, and a PC MPP, Lisa MacLeod, tabled Bill C-14, which proposes similar measures to C-13 without making any mention to sexual orientation.

The controversy grew as the Ontario NDP asked for amendments, including the following amendment to 303.1:

(2) For greater certainty, neither the board nor the principal shall refuse to allow a pupil to use the name gay-straight alliance or a similar name for an organization described in clause

Bill C-13 passed the provincial legislation last week, to a great deal of both applause and frustration. The goal is to have this new legislation in effect in provincial schools by the start of next September’s fall semester.

Part of the issue is that the Catholic School Board favours a top-down approach to teaching, and believes (along with parents) that this bill restrict the parent/teacher/principal role (despite their role being recognized in the legislation). According to a 15-page document released by Board trustees, Catholic clubs are encouraged to have teacher moderators and to designate principals to approve the group’s name and activities. It includes these words:

Student Activities or Organizations are not intended as (a forum) for activism, protest or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school

At this time the Catholic School Board has signaled that it will not sue the government over this action, but there was a great deal of speculation about legal action before the bill passed, and it seems that it may happen in future, sinking public money into what could become a protracted legal battle.

As well, it seems doubtful the Catholic School Board will respect the new rules. Fred Collie, the Bishop of the Thunder Bay Diocese, made these comments to the Kenora Daily Miner:

Everything we do in our schools, every part of our curriculum, always has a Catholic component to it…We’re going say the Catholic church is not going to endorse or support homosexual lifestyles because we don’t see it as a proper lifestyle or a morally good lifestyle for people.

It begs the question: why does the province of Ontario still support a separate religious school as part of the public system?

The Catholic School Board is a public entity supported by public money, yet takes its utimate leadership from the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican, not the province of Ontario. This means that a branch of the Ontario public school system, with a Vatican-led stance on homosexuality, is in breach of the Canadian Constitution, which guarantees that every Canadian is free from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It’s also worth noting that in 1999 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Canada and the province of Ontario for violating equality provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and and Political Rights. In this 2005 report, the Committee restated its concerns and observed that Canada continued to fail to “adopt steps in order to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario.”

This issue, however, is much broader than that. I don’t believe that a single ideology or belief system should be taught at a public school as the “correct” one, to the exclusion of all others, regardless what that belief is. If parents want their children to be educated from a particular perspective they have every right to do so, but I don’t believe that this type of exclusive education should occur in the public school system. This is why I advocate for a single public school board for our province, without religious affiliation.

There are a variety of reasons to do this:

One of the arguments for continuing the Catholic School Board is that it provides an alternative to parents who don’t want to send their children to a private school yet want their children to receive a religious upbringing. I don’t believe it is fair for one religious perspective (Roman Catholic) to be supported on public money to the exclusion of all others. Ontario has many different belief perspectives/traditions, and though Roman Catholic is the largest denomination in Ontario (with 34% of Ontario identifying themselves as RC in 2001), it shouldn’t have special standing above all others (the beliefs of the other 66% of Ontario). For education equality, we should have one board.

However, I don’t believe this should mean that the entire Ontario public system teaches only secular ideas. I believe all religious perspectives could and should be available to students who want to study them. The Catholic School Board states that they are a “vital component of the province’s publicly funded education system” and the diversity it brings is part of what makes our system so successful.

I believe the opposite. I am proud of our public school system, but believe it could be so much better.

I believe that this merger would lead to a stronger system by creating a more unified, inclusive education structure and provide a more varied education to all Ontario students. By merging school boards and thereby students, teachers, buildings etc., all public school students would have more resources at their disposal. Instead of positioning our students in secular vs. religious schools, they would meet students with more varied perspectives and make more topics available for study.

Ontario Green Party Leader, Mike Schreiner, puts it this way:

We need to merge the best of the Catholic and public system into one publicly funded education system, French and English.

I also believe that this merger should happen for financial reasons, and should be an easy sell particularly to the Ontario PC in this regard as it would help lower the province’s deficit. Although this issue was avoided by the Drummond Report, it would help the public school system operate much more efficiently. I find it completely unacceptable that the province operates separate sets of schools with their own boards regardless of inefficiencies, especially considering the financial state that the province is in. A move to merge the public and Catholic school boards (starting with the management of the boards, and moving downwards to give the school systems time to adjust to the changes) would be a practical, achievable step in lowering the public cost of education in the province.

Mike Schreiner says it so well:

The public wants to have a conversation about whether it’s appropriate that we fund one religious school to the exclusion of all others. That’s an equity issue. It’s a fairness issue. It’s a fiscal responsibility issue. And, at the end of the day, it’s a quality-of-education issue.

I’ve been following the news of Ontario’s Bill C-13, the Accepting Schools Act, with interest as the story has unfolded. This week, the legislation passed 65-36, with Liberal and NDP members voting for it, and all PC members voting against (as told here). It has become a very emotional issue, surrounding this portion of the legislation:

303.1 Every board shall support pupils who want to establish and lead,(a) activities or organizations that promote gender equity;(b) activities or organizations that promote anti-racism;(c) activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people with disabilities; or(d) activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.

Perspectives towards this legislation have been varied, to say the least.

A sample of the support for the legislation has been posted on this government website. Among those speaking in support of the legislation are Nancy Kirby, President of Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, Catherine Fife, President of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, Gordon Floyd, President and CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario, and Kevin O’Dwyer, President of the Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association.

There are many detractors as well.

One prominent group has been members of Ontario Catholic School Boards. Many have pushed heavily for a generic name for student groups, not using the words “Gay-Straight Alliance”. They have accused the Liberals of being needlessly polarizing and forcing the schools to go against Catholic Church teachings, as shown here. Another example of religious complaints against the legislation is available in this release by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Another group vocally against the legislation is Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party. Randy Hillier, PC, MPP for Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, shares his thoughts on the legislation here.

There are deep convictions on both sides of the issue. These are my thoughts on the legislation, and why it is important.

One of the arguments against this legislation is that it is up to parents to change their children, not the government. It is true parents need to step in and teach their children respect, respect for everything they think they need to bully another person for, including physical size, sex, age, race, religion, sexual orientation. The legislation does mention that this is an important component:

Acknowledge that an open and ongoing dialogue among the principal, school staff, parents and students is an important component in creating a positive school climate in which everyone feels safe and respected.

But what do we do when a parent refuses/is unable to do so, and the schoolmates suffer? Schools already have methods to deal with bullying, but it still is very persistent (with current estimates of 1/3 of entire student population bullied), and students have committed suicide because they can see no other way out of their torment.

Specifically, what is done for children that are victims of bullying because of their sexual orientation? Several people I grew up with are gay, but tried to mask that they were to avoid bullying while in school, and only came out after leaving Wiarton. No one should have to lie to themselves and others about who they are for fear of bullying.

Also, what if their parents are the bullies? Many homosexual people can’t even turn to their own family for support.

The creation of safe spaces for students, specifically Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), is commendable. No school board or principal should be allowed to stop such a positive group from forming when students in their school want to create one. Post-secondary schools are already forming these (or similar) groups, to create safe spaces for people who are adults. I think it is that much more important that these groups are available to students that may have no other place to turn.

Comments by people like MPP Hilliers that this legislation is a waste of time overlooks the fact that at least one PC member believes that a similar legislation should be passed. PC MPP Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton) tabled Bill C-14, the Anti-Bullying Act (also known as the counter-Bill C-13) that is very similar to the one presented by the Liberals, except that it didn’t make reference to sexual orientation at all. I believe that the PCs believe in the importance of this legislation by the government, but without wanting to offend the Catholic School Board or their conservative base.

It has also been argued that these new clubs would be exclusive instead of inclusive. This argument ignores the nature of groups like gay-straight alliances, which encourages all people to participate in a respectful manner. I wish that these groups had existed when I grew up. I understand that they will not be a quick fix to deep-rooted bullying issues, but I feel that it is a positive step in bringing people of all sexual orientations together for discussion, with the goal of moving towards understanding and acceptance.

I am particularly troubled by the religious arguments against supporting this legislation. My understanding is that Christianity should accept any movement to protect persecuted and abused people, most especially vulnerable people such as children, and should not be leading the charge against that action. The fact that students in Ontario today can go to a public school that is dictated by the Vatican belief that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law” demonstrates why this legislation is so important. It also begs the question of why Ontario still has a publically funded Catholic School Board.

I was bullied throughout my childhood, for being small for my age, for being artistic, and for enjoying reading. There were days I dreaded going to school, and felt trapped because I knew that if I turned to my parents or teachers for help, my life might only become worse by drawing further attention. Everyone is different, and anything that can be done to break down stereotypes and prejudice should be encouraged. That is why I think Bill C-13 matters.