7th graders go on field trip to protest with OCAP

Posted on April 6, 2011 in Education Debates

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NationalPost.com – postedToronto
Apr 6, 2011.   Megan O’Toole

Grade 7 and 8 students at a west-end alternative school took an unusual field trip last week: They headed downtown to a protest hosted by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, a notoriously confrontational activist group.

But to Demitra Zervas, principal of City View Alternative Senior School, there was nothing extraordinary about the outing; in fact, students at her school have been repeatedly exposed to OCAP’s ideology, even participating in volunteer placements with the militant anti-poverty organization.

Friday’s trip gave the school’s approximately five dozen elementary-age students — most of whom attended, but only with parental consent, Ms. Zervas said — a chance to observe first-hand OCAP’s “March on the McGuinty Government.” The protest, which began at Nathan Phillips Square, called upon the province to raise welfare and disability rates.

“Recently the students had been discussing the issue of poverty and looking at the elements of the provincial budget that address poverty and hunger,” Ms. Zervas said, noting the goal of the protest trip was “to teach students how they can make a difference … and part of that is how to engage our civic leaders in respectful ways.”

OCAP protests have become a recurring part of the curriculum at City View, Ms. Zervas said, along with annual volunteer placements. The west-end Toronto school, which has been operating for 12 years, focuses on peace and social justice issues, with subjects taught “through the lens of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability,” according to an online statement.

Each spring, students dedicate one week to volunteering for justice-based community and international organizations, spreading that time between at least two different groups.

While some students have gone with more conventional organizations, such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, others have volunteered with OCAP, Ms. Zervas explained.

Though few would argue against the overall goals of OCAP — which did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Post — the methods by which the group pursues its activist agenda have caused controversy. In February, OCAP made headlines after storming a budget committee meeting at City Hall to criticize cuts to bus service and shelters; two members were arrested.

In one of their most infamous demonstrations, OCAP members amassed at Queen’s Park in 2000, throwing Molotov cocktails and chunks of concrete at police. Members have also been charged at various times with mischief and trespassing, and OCAP openly touts its “direct-action advocacy,” with organizer John Clarke once referring to the group’s tactics as “methods of mobilization and disruption to achieve some power.”

All of this has Toronto’s budget chief questioning why City View would risk exposing students to such tactics.

“In terms of example-setting, in terms of respect for somebody else’s point of view, I don’t think [OCAP members] demonstrate that,” said Councillor Mike Del Grande (Scarborough-Agincourt), who was forced to adjourn the budget meeting in February while police subdued protesters. “It’s their way and the only way … it’s fine to be socially conscious, but I don’t think they’ve demonstrated a respect for the rule of law.”

Ontario Education Ministry spokesman Gary Wheeler would not comment on the propriety of sending students to a protest by a militant group, but said student safety must be considered “in any activity, including field trips, during instructional hours.” He redirected specific questions to the Toronto District School Board; chair Chris Bolton said he was not familiar with OCAP.

The Toronto Police Service declined to comment on whether the protest trip raised safety concerns, but Ms. Zervas said if students appeared to be in danger at any point, the trip would end immediately.

Annie Kidder, executive director of the parent-led organization People for Education, said it is ultimately up to parents as to whether they want their children participating in such activities. But the issue raises larger questions on how best to educate students about political engagement, she said.

“Really the question is, how do we engage kids in thinking about and observing and seeing in action how politics works?” she said. “Because this is part of how politics works.”

National Post

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