Hamilton

In Grade 6 she felt she had no voice. In Grade 12 she grabs the opportunity to be heard

Amelia Arlen, a Grade 12 student at Westmount Secondary School, learned how to develop her political voice and turn her concerns into activism.

‘Students feel like their future is being ripped away from them,' twelfth-grader says

Amelia Arlen felt she had no voice in Grade 6 when her extracurriculars were cancelled, but she's since learned how to speak out for young people's causes. (Supplied)

Amelia Arlen, a Grade 12 student at Westmount Secondary School, turns 18-years-old just two days after the upcoming federal election.

Her inability to cast a ballot didn't hold her back from joining hundreds of local Hamilton students and thousands of students province-wide in walkouts protesting education cuts Thursday.

The walkouts were an "amazing experience" for Arlen, who wasn't always as confident or outspoken about her political opinions.

She hasn't forgotten the reason that inspired her to participate — six years ago, a labour dispute between teachers and the provincial government left 11-year-old Arlen feeling forgotten, overlooked by the government, and without a voice.

Students from Cathedral High School and Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School gathered outside city hall Thursday to voice their concerns about education cuts. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Brink of giving up

Arlen was an enthusiastic, engaged sixth-grade student at W.H. Ballard Elementary School. The then-11-year-old was a senior member of her guide unit, a junior member at a DIY crafting and hacking collective, in addition to attending weekly choir and cross-country meets.

Just two weeks into the school year, she was upset to learn that her extracurricular activities had been axed, as a result of a labour dispute between Ontario teachers and the then-Liberal provincial government.

Seeing the activities she was passionate about taken away so suddenly, without any input from students, left Arlen feeling dispirited in her situation and aimless in her course of action.

Then-Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty revoked teachers' right to strike for two years, which resulted in a nearly year and a half dispute between the government and educators. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

She turned to her teachers for an explanation, but they could provide nothing more than "can't tell you anything."

"I felt like I didn't have a say in anything," Arlen said.

Feeling discouraged and not being able to turn to her teachers, she texted her dad to explain how she felt her young voice was powerless in the dispute.

"I am a kid and the government would not care about me," Arlen told him in the text-message conversation.

Her concerned father took a screenshot of the conversation and shared it on social media — it later went viral in Hamilton and garnered support, which showed Arlen her voice did in fact matter.

Skeptic turned activist

Arlen had a strong message for Premier Doug Ford on Thursday about the government's changes to the education system.

"I would tell [him] that he needs to pay attention to education because it is what empowers our future, for it should become better and not worse," she said.

Years ago, an issue like this might have stopped Arlen in her tracks, but not anymore. Instead, it fuels her to organize, mobilize, and present a chorus of critical young voices to those in power.

That took her years of practice.

Young students participate in a protest outside Hamilton city hall Thursday, holding a sign claiming bigger class sizes will 'make brain sizes smaller.' (Justin Mowat/CBC)

The initial labour dispute that got Arlen down in 2012 dragged on for nearly a year and a half, until an agreement was reached and extracurriculars resumed.

In the years since Arlen has learned how to voice her perspective constructively. It started with figuring out what causes really mattered to her, she explained.

"High school was a part of that — I came out of my shell, became less shy, had more opportunities to learn what should and shouldn't happen," she said.

"I'm voicing my opinion and I'm making sure it is heard."

The walkouts come in the wake of a growing trend of youth activism. Efficiently-organized groups of students have utilized social media to take to the streets in large numbers and voice their concerns.

"It is their future. They should have a say in it even if a ballot can't do that for them," Arlen said.

An evolving perspective

CBC Hamilton spoke with Amelia after the Thursday walkouts to talk about the importance of young voices in the current political climate:

What was your experience yesterday participating in the student walkouts? How was it organized and how did it unfold?

"The walkouts were an amazing experience and an example of how social media can do an amazing thing for people and bring them together, because that's all we had."

"We couldn't advertise in schools because the schools and the administration can't condone what we're doing. They can't say yes, you should do this, because they were told by their union not to."

How are students feeling about the government?

"So many students that I've talked to are feeling very frustrated with the government about the changes that are being made."

"It affects them personally, whether you need OSAP to cover post-secondary education or you feel that your class sizes are already huge and making them larger would decrease your value of learning."

What most worries you about these education changes?

"Next year, if the work-to-rule happens and a strike happens, so many students will lose extra curricular activities that they are relying on."

"They won't get those ideas and opportunities and experiences to learn outside of just the classroom."

What would you say to your Grade 6 self about her voice if you could talk to her now?

"I would tell Grade 6 me to make sure her voice is heard … I would tell her to make her opinion matter."

What's the importance of young people voicing their concerns about public policy?

"Young people do need to voice their concerns about public policy when they see it as wrong and not helping them."

"Although we do not get a ballot in an election, it still is our future and it still matters to us and it still affects us past today."

About the Author

Justin Mowat

Reporter/Editor

Justin Mowat is a journalist and a filmmaker interning at CBC Hamilton. He’s a multi-faceted storyteller with a passion for classic films, the environment, and the occasional slick guitar solo. If you’ve got a story to tell, he wants to hear it: justin.mowat@cbc.ca

With files from Kaleigh Rogers and Laura Clementson