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Education What students learnt from Bill 115: Don't depend on school

We were answering the desperate call for youth political engagement – probably not in the way the government was hoping.

On Dec. 18, 2012, 3,000 of my peers gathered as demonstrators in front of the Ontario legislative building at Queen's Park. Enraged about the Bill 115 labour disputes, we students were the innocent victims of a battle in which we had no stake. The fight was between teachers and the province, yet the toll was on our extracurricular activities.

Things were so unsettling that I received a call from then Minister of Education Laurel Broten, requesting a meeting, minutes before the rally – naturally, they were nervous. High-school students' incredible willingness to be civic advocates and potential to think beyond the confines of the classroom was rarely showcased.

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The situation has died down considerably since then, and most schools end the year with full extracurricular activities restored. While the storm has calmed, it's now imperative that we use the Bill 115 ordeal as a learning tool to understand the weaknesses, strengths and areas of improvement in the Ontario education system.

We are often presented with statistics that show students below par when it comes to political involvement. Statistics say that voting turnout for youth between 18-24 is only at 37 per cent on average in the past few federal elections in Canada. The mistake is, however, in believing that the statistics gauge political apathy. Instead, these statistical accusations only prove that students seldom have anything political to engage them.

Throughout the Bill 115 dispute, we witnessed hundreds of protests across the province, dozens of Facebook advocacy groups and thousands of frustrated students. In a matter of days, a multitude of online campaigns garnered the support of thousands of students. The problem, consequently, isn't a lack of willingness on the part of students to engage in political matters; rather, it's that students aren't given anything relevant with which to engage. Legislative policy rarely immediately impacts students, our education and our voice.

As a result, a vicious cycle is created – between apathetic youth and minimal political motivation to accommodate our concerns. I'm not proposing that we continue to encourage student political involvement through a subsequent, Bill 116, but rather that we use this situation as a measure of students' capability in becoming involved citizens if included in political processes.

It was also striking to see the students' over-reliance on in-school extracurricular activities – exactly what was being taken advantage of in the labour disputes. I have always despised the "think small" mentality that's nurtured in school. Perhaps the problem isn't necessarily that we're being told to "think small" but rather we're not given a chance to "think big."

Not enough has been done to encourage students to think about getting involved outside of school to perhaps create their own companies, charities, and organizations. Students are encouraged to explore, but only within the boundaries of the school. We are not encouraged, for example, to attend leadership conferences out of town if it means we miss a school day.

Extracurriculars must extend to activities students pursue on their own. If 20 years ago, the height of extracurricular involvement was joining the Student Activity Council, today it's starting an international charity or perhaps creating a successful company.

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The labour disputes have taught us exactly this – that students must move toward discovering opportunities outside of school. Stories emerged this year about senior high-school students being concerned that university admission officers would not look kindly on their inability to get involved in school activities – particularly when students outside Ontario did not have the same problems. If anything, this is a wake-up call for us to abandon our sole obsession with extracurricular activities and begin to redefine what it means to "get involved."

Bill 115 – the Putting Students First Act – was often contested for its name and intent. The bill itself hasn't helped anyone or anything, though it's safe to say that we've learned more than ever about students' willingness to get involved politically when something affects them. It's important that we continue to learn and analyze this academic year with the goal of giving the opportunity to students to put ourselves first.

Kourosh Houshmand is a student trustee for the Toronto District School Board and Vice-President, Ontario Student Trustees' Association Public Board. He is attending Trinity College at the University of Toronto in the fall.

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