Allison Hanes: Strike taking a toll on Montreal's most vulnerable families

Community organizations are struggling to pick up the slack as desperate parents need somewhere to put their kids.

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“Kids are not doing OK.”

That’s the blunt assessment of Christine Richardson, director of Jeunesse Loyola, a community organization that runs activities for youth in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Gràce district. She also happens to be a friend.

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“It’s the uncertainty, the flashbacks to COVID and schools being closed, the lack of stability,” said Richardson, whose organization is among those who sprung into action to provide activities for some of the city’s most vulnerable children since 66,000 Quebec teachers first began an unlimited strike last month.

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Instead of operating after-school programs starting from 3 p.m., Jeunesse Loyola has been working from 9 a.m. to sometimes 8 p.m., caring for more kids (up to 50 from the usual 30) and trying to feed children who usually benefit from school meal programs with little more than a hot plate and donated supplies.

“It wasn’t even a discussion really with the team when we heard about the strike. It was like ‘Well obviously we have to open. … We can’t let these kids sit at home hungry with nothing to do,” Richardson said. “At the time we thought a few days, maybe. We’re now in the fourth week.”

Parents are not doing OK, either. Richardson has had to turn needy families away, while another 15 or so are on a waiting list.

“I had a dad in tears the other day, begging me to take his kids,” she said. “And I was like ‘It’s actually a safety concern at this point. I can’t have more than a certain number of people.’”

All Quebec parents are gritting their teeth, this week, trying to balance work with childcare, as the rest of the province’s school teachers join the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement on the picket lines. Quebecers, for the most part, are behind the teachers, CEGEP instructors, nurses, medical technicians and other professionals in education, health and social services, who are seeking better wages and working conditions.

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But the prolonged disruption is taking a toll on many of Montreal’s most vulnerable families. And although there has been some progress, the government’s lack of urgency in settling the strike is baffling given its claims education is a top priority and its focus on ensuring newcomers learn French.

While most English schools have been closed only sporadically, nearly 400,000 students in French schools have been out of class since Nov. 23. This includes some of Montreal’s most at-risk students, since immigrants are required to study in French under the Charter of the French Language. This includes kids whose parents not only don’t have the luxury of working from home but may actually work long hours at two or three jobs.

“It’s a delicate situation because these groups want to show solidarity with the cause because they recognize the importance of what (the teachers) are seeking, except that we’re facing a situation where if we don’t offer support, there will be children who won’t eat,” said Anne Dupont-Huot, coordinator of the Table de concertation jeunesse N.D.G., an umbrella group for community groups that work in the youth sector in the neighbourhood. “What we fear is a delay in the learning of French for newcomers, many of whom are in classes d’accueil and for whom the main place where they’re immersed in French is at school. So we worry about not only a delay but a loss of learning, especially with the holidays coming, which will mean another two weeks where they’re not in an environment where they’re in daily contact with French.”

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Jay Valiquette runs the Valiquette Academy Foundation, another non-profit that stepped up during the strike. He quickly managed to rent extra space above a restaurant at Victoria and Van Horne Aves. in Côte-des-Neiges, to accommodate more children. His organization usually runs tutoring programs and day camps for a fee, but is now trying to promote French literacy, keep up math skills and introduce coding.

Although he fully supports teachers and the reasons for the strike, Valiquette is concerned about the long-term repercussions on his diverse clientele since French schools in Montreal have been closed the longest, English schools periodically and private schools not at all.

“The issue here is the equality of opportunity has eroded and specially for a demographic that is already at a disadvantage and often marginalized,” Valiquette said. “This strike will only serve to widen the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.”

While everyone’s priority is the kids, community groups themselves are not doing OK.

It’s costing Jeunesse Loyola, which is dependant on grants, about $1,000 a day extra to function.

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“When we were talking about a few days, it was like ‘We can come up with that. We can find some extra money. We can do a bit of fundraising at the end of the year and fill in that gap,’” Richardson said. “But we’re now looking at tens of thousands of dollars.”

She’s facing the prospect of having to cut programming. For instance, Jeunesse Loyola usually opens for a few days over the holidays, since the parents of the children enrolled there typically don’t get two weeks off over the Christmas break.

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“We now have to decide when to end services for people who are desperate,” said Richardson. “It’s incredibly hard.”

Many community groups are in the same boat, said Dupont-Huot. They mobilized without the emergency funding or enough human resources to keep going at this level indefinitely. Most of their staff are part-time, may be studying or have other jobs, and are paid minimum wage.

“Everyone is burnt out,” she said. “It’s important for us that teachers return to work as soon as possible, with the best possible conditions. But I think it’s important that the government publicly recognize the efforts the community sector has made … and extend special financial envelopes to these organizations who have opened their doors.

“It’s the least they can do.”

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