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Illustration by Hanna BarczykILLUSTRATION BY HANNA BARCZYK

When I was a kid growing up in Ontario, we had our own version of death and taxes – that is, experiences that we all shared, unpleasant or not. Everyone secretly wanted to get on Tiny Talent Time, even while dismissing it as the uncoolest show ever. All parents told their children that they would go to jail for picking trilliums, the provincial flower, a falsehood that haunts many of us into adulthood. And you could never, ever escape A Place to Grow, the terrifyingly chipper “Ontario Song” that filled the airwaves just as you were trying to enjoy Tiny Talent Time in peace.

I apologize for planting the Ontari-ari-ario ear worm in your head, but it’s okay: I’m about to replace it with something far scarier, which is the provincial government’s selling-out of a generation of living things. Ontario’s new licence plate reads “a place to grow,” a profound irony considering that the current government’s main ambition involves chopping things down – literally, in some cases, and metaphorically in others. Why does Premier Doug Ford hate the future so much? I’m not sure, but I’ve lived through a lot of premiers and never seen one so keen to burn it down.

These are things that are being encouraged to grow in current-day Ontario: hangovers (thanks to buck-a-beer and drinking in parks), speed limits (there’s a review planned for 400-series highways) and viruses (provincial cuts in funding will affect public-health outbreak prevention). Concern over the affordability of beer has left little room in the provincial hierarchy of needs for certain other things – namely trees, endangered species and children.

What do those three things have in common? That’s right, they’re things that grow if given the right nourishment, or at the very least not actively hacked down. A successful future requires investment now, which is proving to be a surprisingly contentious viewpoint. If you believe A Place to Grow, Ontario is supposed to be “A place to live, for you and me/With hopes as high as the tallest tree.” Just try telling that to the people who grow tree seedlings – millions of which face destruction in the wake of the government’s plan to cancel a project to plant 50 million trees in the province. The project was part of a much-needed provincial climate-change corrective; nurseries were contracted to grow the baby trees. Now, faced with the project being uprooted, those seedlings may be destroyed. This is all to save $4.7-million from the provincial budget. (After an outcry, it appears that there’s a one-year reprieve on the program, but the seedlings still face destruction.)

It’s not just trees that are threatened; it’s also the hundreds of protected species that live in Ontario. In the same month that a United Nations report prophesied catastrophic ruin for our planetary ecosystems, with a million species potentially at risk of extinction, the province is gutting protection for the 240 or so threatened species that live in this province. Critics say that the government’s new proposals for housing development will allow developers to skirt existing animal-protection rules, or offer compensation for habitat harm, a proposition that Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner calls “pay to slay.” Come to think of it, “pay to slay” might have made a nice licence-plate slogan. Punchier, and less hypocrisy.

But even if we’re no longer looking after the province’s trees or owls, we’re still looking after the kids, right? Let’s go to a classroom and ask some of them. What’s that? They’re not in the classroom right now because they’re out protesting the government’s cuts to education? They’re trying to stage sit-ins at their MPPs’ offices while the MPPs lock the doors and huddle in the back with the lights out, like scared hens? Perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

I’m not sure where to even begin detailing the provincial government’s betrayal of the province’s children, so vast and senseless has the chaos been. Should we start with the families whose children live with autism, who were promised an overhaul of a malfunctioning system and were rewarded with one that strayed even farther from their needs? That was a big betrayal, but the small ones hurt, too, such as the government’s decision in December to cut funds for after-school programs and in-class tutoring. Let’s get them out on the street instead, where they’ll learn to make small change buying weed in parking lots. It’s the new math, so favoured by this government.

“Education cuts will scar our future” read a sign at an Ottawa students’ rally. The person holding the sign was at least five years from voting age, so I’m not sure anyone at Queen’s Park was paying too much attention. A student is neither a taxpayer nor a voter nor a developer nor a lobbyist, so who cares? But those are the kids who will have to live with larger classroom sizes, more online learning and less sex education. Or, let’s face it, no sex education at all unless it arrives on their phone. Although I suppose that’s the kind of low-cost outsourcing that Conservatives like.

I haven’t even had time to mention the school-breakfast programs or subsidized daycare spots that are threatened by provincial funding cuts. Apparently the province’s new math doesn’t allow for those projects, although it allows for hundreds of millions of dollars spent fighting to get beer into corner stores, and battling the federal government’s carbon tax.

All of these cuts have arrived in a flurry, largely without expert consultation, their randomness and suddenness an apparent strategy. It’s as if the government adopted Silicon Valley’s mantra of “move fast and break things” without realizing that the unspoken conclusion to that mantra is “in order to make them better.”

Every government struggles with deficits, and each one decides where its priorities lie. We can at least thank Doug Ford for making it clear where his priorities lie, because it’s certainly not the future. Ontario: If you’re a kid, it’s a place that blows. Is it too late to change the licence plates?

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