A convoy of concerned voices is currently making its way through Northwestern Ontario.
Members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), along with some parents of autistic children, were in Fort Frances yesterday in an attempt to reach the ear of MPP Greg Rickford.
“We're here in Fort Frances today to support families,” said Erin Rice, OPSEU's chair of Developmental Services.
“With the new proposed changes to the autism file, and the billion-dollar cut in social services, we know that we are all going to be effected by that,” she added.
OPSEU will be stopping front of Rickford's constituency offices across the riding as part of its “Families Know Best Voyage,” which included yesterday's stop in town, along with stops in Kenora today, and Dryden on Thursday, before the campaign ends at the OPSEU Region 7 office back in Thunder Bay on Friday.
Rice explained that part of the reason for the voyage was to voice their concerns surround the changes in autism funding to Rickford and the provincial PC Government, particularly in how it will affect Northwestern Ontario.
“When we look at the north, we know that kilometres are a very large issue,” Rice said.
“Many family members are not able to get to the services they need to get to, and the funding that they do receive right now goes to kilometres in their cars. With a cut like this they're going to need to sell their houses and move into a different community,” she added.
Rice also said that OPSEU was looking for answers from Rickford about why the region wasn't consulted on changes to the autism program like other parts of the province.
“In Northwestern Ontario we were never consulted on the autism file, or any social services in regards to the cuts that are coming down,” Rice explained.
“We know that there were tables sent up to Sudbury, but we were forgotten. They have suggested that they were going to have new tables set up, and that's why we're here, we're here to help the families promote those new tables,” she added.
Sarah Montgomery travelled from Atikokan as part of the OPSEU voyage yesterday. She is a mother to four children, two of whom have been diagnosed with autism, and she said her youngest child is also showing signs of autism. Montgomery said she is already feeling the effects of the cuts.
“I actually have had funding cuts within my out of home respite,” she explained.
“A worker comes and takes my child for an hour a few times a month to give me a break to work with my other children, or to catch up on housework or go to meetings, but my money has already been cut back. I wasn't getting much to begin with, which is fine, but every little bit helps,” said Montgomery.
Montgomery said that there are few resources available to her in Atikokan, and her children require supports that budget cuts could take from them.
“It will essentially stop them from getting the benefits and the extras that they need to have the same opportunities in life as a normal child,” she said.
“My oldest has a teacher assistant with him for when he's in school and has his issues. I'm concerned that the cuts are going to effect the schooling system and the psychology, the diagnosing, as well as the funding for parents to have an extra hand on deck helping them,” added Montgomery.
Meanwhile, Rickford said his government is working hard to improve autism services to those in need in Northwestern Ontario.
“Three out of every four kids [with autism] in the province of Ontario are on a waitlist,” Rickford said.
“They don't get any services at all. So we inherited a system that was not just broke but broken, and we intend to fix it,” he added.
Rickford noted that part of the efforts to improve the autism program came in the form of an “emergency” $100 million increase to autism services last year, and an additional $300 million on top of the funding announced by the PC Government earlier this year. He explained that additional resources are going into education and health care to help with autism in those capacities.
“There's no jurisdiction in North America, to be clear, that's investing more in autism that this government, period,” he said.
Rickford also said the government is committed to making sure that when children with autism get off the waitlist for a service, they stay off it.
“When a child gets an exclusive service, be it a behavioural analysis or from a pediatric service or psychologist, it tends to be a one-off and then they go back on the waiting list,” he explained.
“We don't want that. We want those children to stay in a system where they get ongoing services for continuity,” added Rickford.
He noted out that many of the parents of children with autism he has spoken to in the district have told him that the services they require aren't readily available nearby.
“They have come to me and said one of the reasons that we haven't been as vociferous is because we don't have access to a lot of the services that they have in other parts of the province,” Rickford explained.
“And I said 'Well, then let's sit down and identify what services they are and make sure that we have the people and the resources to support them,'” he added.
Rickford said that the government will have an advisory panel made up of experts, parents and adults with autism, and begin public consultations on the changes to the program in May, adding that the consultation will include an online survey and telephone town halls in order to reach as many people as possible. He said that the increases in funding announced by the government are aimed at combating the lack of services that he has heard about from his constituents.
“If there's a shortage of frontline autism workers, then that's exactly what that initial surge funding and the doubling that we are making is intended to look after,” he said.
“The consultations that we have with the families through the advisory panel and the work that we're doing is intended to do exactly that. What we're intending on doing is bringing those services in.”
Rice said that during their time travelling the district, OPSEU would be collecting the stories from families who are being affected by the changes to the program.
“We want to take those stories and we want to bring them to [NDP MPP] Monique Taylor and have her show them to the conservative party,” Rice said.
“And maybe let them put some faces to some of the pain that's happening from their cuts. We're not going to do it in paper, we're going to do it in video.”
For her part, Montgomery said she hopes to be able to get in touch with Rickford in the near future.
“I would like to be able to sit down and have a conversation with him and just ask him 'what if it was your child?'” she said.
“What if it was your child that was not going to have the opportunities that every other child has, because yours needs a little extra help, and a little extra guidance?”