Arts program for at-risk youth says province is pulling $500K in funding

A Toronto program that provides arts and social development programming for at-risk youth says that it will soon lose $500,000 of crucial funding from the Ontario government.

Office of Tourism, Culture and Sport says money was promised to Sistema by Liberals without proper approval

Sistema Toronto, which provides arts programming for at-risk youth, says it will soon lose $500,000 of funding from the Ontario government. (Sistema)

A Toronto program that provides arts and social development programming for at-risk youth says it will soon lose $500,000 of crucial funding from the Ontario government.

Sistema Toronto, which provides free daily programs to 275 students and their families in Parkdale, Jane-Finch and East Scarborough, said Thursday the government has cut the funding that was previously promised to the organization by the Wynne government in May. The provincial funding makes up a significant portion of Sistema's annual $900,000 budget. 

"The government of Ontario is no longer supporting community building, arts programming, and support for priority neighbourhoods," Sistema Toronto said in a press release.

"The loss of funding means that Sistema Toronto will serve fewer at-risk children and support fewer of Toronto families living in poverty, leaving dozens of priority kids without any means to change their futures."

Program fosters connection, mother says

Ying Pan will soon have three kids at Sistema Toronto programs and says the program has been invaluable for herself and her family.

Her children Camellia, 13, and Celina, 11, are both senior violinists who started in the program in 2013, and Cynthia, 6, is one of 50 new students who will start in the Music & Movement group in September.

She says the program has helped her bond with her children over music and that it has also helped her second-youngest daughter come out of her shell.

"After one year in Sistema, she is more social," Pan told CBC Toronto. "She has more friends."

Celina, 11, is a senior violinist who started in Sistema in 2013. (Sistema)

Now she says her daughter is coming to her with more stories about what she is learning in school with her friends. Pan says the program has helped her connect with other parents at school, too.

"After we have Sistema, each semester we have one potluck," she added. "We share with each other, we talk…. We know more about each other."

The organization says the program also has an effect on students' performance with kids who take part in their program being 25 per cent more likely to get better scores on standardized testing that students who aren't.

Sistema says that the loss of funding from the province means will mean that it will cut jobs for teachers and staff, not be able to purchase instruments for students and new students will no longer be able to be accepted in the program.

Liberals to blame for funding ineligibility, government says

A spokesperson for the minister of tourism, culture and sport says the previous Liberal minister promised funding to Sistema without getting proper approval.

"The day the election was called, the previous Minister committed funding to this organization without going through the proper approval process," Richard Clark, director of communications for the ministry told CBC Toronto in a statement. "Unfortunately, Sistema does not meet the criteria for this grant and is not eligible for funding."

Clark, however, said the provincial government is committed to supporting kids in high-risk areas.

"Our government recently approved support to over 120 organizations to deliver no-cost or low-cost fun, safe, supervised activities to more than 21,000 students," he added. "These programs will be delivered at over 400 sites in high priority neighbourhoods across the province."

Hilary Johnston, managing director for Sistema Toronto, says the organization was notified they would be receiving the funding after a number of consultations and the submission of a pre-budget proposal through the MPP in one of the ridings where the program operates.

"The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport contacted us once the budget was officially approved to let us know our pre-budget proposal was selected for funding," Johnston said. "After submitting our program curriculum and conducting a site visit with ministry staff, we were told that we more than met the ministry program guidelines."

The move by the Ford government to not follow through with the funding has seen sharp criticism from members of the opposition.

NDP MPP for Parkdale–High Park Bhutila Karpoche in a media release called for the provincial government to "reverse its decision" regarding the funding.

NDP MPP Bhutila Karpoche has called for the provincial government to 'reverse its decision' regarding the funding. (CBC)

"We need to be investing in community programs like Sistema Toronto that provide much-needed opportunities in priority neighbourhoods and help break the cycle of poverty," she said.

Liberal MPP and former minister of education, Mitzie Hunter, called the announcement by the Ford government "disappointing."

"This is a time when we need to focus on the root causes of social inequality that leads to violence," Hunter said in a media release.

"The Sistema program addresses the lack of quality educational programing available to these underserved communities and cancelling planned funding puts these children at risk of not reaching their full potential."