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Ontario legislature returns from break with questions about teachers, autism

Last Updated Feb 18, 2020 at 9:04 pm EDT

Teachers of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario wave to honking cars as they participate in a full withdrawal of services strike in Toronto on Jan. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — The return of Ontario’s legislature after a winter break was dominated Tuesday by questions about the government’s talks with teachers and its handling of autism services, while parents protested on the lawn.

Tensions with the teachers’ unions escalated over the legislature’s nine-week break, to the point where all four major unions are now engaging in strikes. They are all planning a joint, province-wide strike on Friday.

Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government was eager to get deals and to keep kids in the classrooms.

As the government fielded questions about its education policy, a vocal group of more than a hundred protesters on the lawn could be heard inside the chamber. Parents have renewed their protests since Social Services Minister Todd Smith conceded in December that a new, needs-based program for children with autism will be phased in over two years, instead of being up and running in April as previously promised.

The Progressive Conservative government has promised an overhaul of the Ontario Autism Program after changes announced last year by the previous minister were fiercely condemned.

Talitha LeBlanc has two children on the autism spectrum, both requiring more than 20 hours a week of intensive therapy. But while her seven-year-old son has been receiving government-funded treatment under the former Liberal government’s program, LeBlanc’s five-year-old daughter has been waiting 2 1/2 years.

“For families who are already faced with additional challenges day-in, day-out, families who are in a state of crisis, families who are literally desperate for help — to have relief dangled in front of you only to have it pulled away again and again is emotionally torturous,” LeBlanc said.

“We knew that we just had to stretch just a little further and then help would arrive, but help never came.”

Once fully up and running in 2021, the program will offer core services that include Applied Behaviour Analysis, speech-language pathology, occupational therapy and mental health supports, time-limited urgent services for families in immediate crisis, early intervention for young children, school readiness services, and workshops and other training for families.

But the core treatment services won’t be available for at least several more months, Smith said.

“We certainly hope to have them started later this year,” he said. “The full program is going to take probably into 2021…. We’re taking the time to make sure we get this right so we have a program that works effectively for years to come.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2020.