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Scandal at St. Michael’s College School prompts calls for greater oversight of private schools

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The scandal at St. Michael’s College School, where police are investigating allegations of assault and sexual assault, is prompting calls for greater oversight of privately run schools.

Any school, publicly funded or private, “has to have transparency and good governance,” says Charles Pascal, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“You can’t play hide-and-seek in publicly funded schools, so it’s imperative that this long-standing free pass for private schools is replaced with better governance,” said Pascal, a former Ontario deputy minister of education.

His comments come on the heels of allegations of assault and sexual assault involving students at the all-boys grades 7-12 school, located at Bathurst St. and St. Clair Ave. W.

About two weeks ago, two videos, of an alleged assault in a washroom and an alleged sexual assault in a locker room, appeared on social media.

The principal learned of the sexual assault video on a Monday evening, but didn’t immediately notify police, because he was busy with the victim and in meetings involving the expulsion of students. On the Wednesday, around 11 a.m., police showed up at the school after media began asking them about the sexual assault video. The principal says he always intended on calling police about it.

This week, six boys were charged with assault, gang sexual assault and sexual assault with a weapon. Police are now investigating six incidents at the school including two alleged sexual assaults, three alleged assaults and one incident related to threatening.

The school’s principal and president resigned.

In Ontario, there are about 1,300 private schools, with 140,000 students, that operate as businesses or non-profit organizations, independent of the Ministry of Education, but must follow the Education Act. The Ministry doesn’t regulate, licence, accredit or oversee the operation of private schools, and has a buyer-beware type of warning on its website, urging the public to do its own research before registering for them. Information on a school’s educational program, business practices and other policies should be obtained from it directly.

The ministry, however, outlines courses students must take to obtain an Ontario Secondary School Diploma, requires private schools submit an annual Notice of Intention to Operate and inspects high schools. Principals and teachers in private schools aren’t required to be certified by the Ontario College of Teachers.

Anyone who works with children must abide by the Child, Youth and Family Services Act (CYFSA), which clearly stipulates that they have an immediate duty to report suspected abuse or harm to a children’s aid society. Public school boards have protocols in place for when they should notify police, which covers incidents such as those of sexual assault.

Barbara Bierman, executive director of Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, which represents 149 private schools, says the law is very clear in the duty to report. And, some private schools do have protocols with police, but whether they do varies by region.

“They (schools) have to have policies in place for abuse prevention and intervention,” she said. “Otherwise, they don’t get insurance.”

St. Mike’s, which is overseen by a board of directors, is a member of the Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario (CIS Ontario), an association of 48 private schools. CIS Ontario did not respond to the Star about whether its members have protocols in place.

Police welcome the opportunity to help St. Mike’s, and other private schools, with protocols, and, at a St. Mike’s alumni meeting this week, the administration said it plans to debrief with them on whether the episode could have been handled better.

Given what’s come to light at St. Mike’s, it’s time for the government to tighten its oversight of private schools, said NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles.

“It’s really kind of striking, when you look at what the Education Act requires of private schools,” Stiles said. “I think even parents of children in private schools would be surprised at how little oversight, and how little regulation, is required.”

Stiles said the government should mandate that private schools have clear processes in place when dealing with incidents such as those at St. Mike’s.

When she was a Toronto public school board trustee, she had to review, on a yearly basis, such protocols, the CYFSA, and her responsibilities as an employer.

“It’s quite striking to me that maybe that’s not required” outside the public system, she said. “At the very least, this indicates that there are some shortcomings in the private education system around understanding what people’s responsibilities are and what the protocols are, and that needs to be made clear.”

Marvin Zuker, a retired provincial court justice who is an associate professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, would like to see the Ontario College of Teachers regulate all teachers, whether they’re certified or not.

“Then they would be subject to the discipline of the college, and, once we can discipline you, we can get rid of you and you’re not going to go next door to teach.”

When it comes to reporting abuse, Zuker, who’s been teaching education law for nearly 40 years, always tells his students to contact a children’s aid society and police immediately. He plans on using the St. Mike’s case as an example in his lessons of what not to do, calling it “a great learning tool.”

MPP Mitzie Hunter, who served as education minister in the previous Liberal government, said, when it comes to private schools, “the expectation would be the same as all public schools: that every student is safe and there’s a trust there. When parents send their children to school, that safety is paramount and there’s no compromise on that safety.”

With 95 per cent of Ontario students attending public school, it’s a small percentage who are in the private system and it may be time to look at changes, she said.

Public boards have “various levels of supervision and trustees who are publicly elected, so there’s additional oversight. There’s no question that, in the public system, there are many layers of oversight which do not exist in the private system,” she added.

“Certainly, the ministry (of education) has a role in registering those schools and there’s an expectation that they are safe environments, but the layer of oversight is not the same.”

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an assistant professor of law society at Wilfrid Laurier University, said protocols with police are “helpful, but not a guarantee,” when it comes to reporting.

“Protocols are a really important part of the network of protection for children,” she said. “When you don’t have that protocol maybe you’d make more of a decision that’s sort of about the institution.”

It looks as if you appreciate our journalism. Our reporting changes lives, connects communities and effects change. But good journalism is expensive to produce, and advertiser revenue throughout the media industry is falling and unable to carry the cost. That means we need you, our readers. We need your help. If you appreciate deep local reporting, powerful investigations and reliable, responsible information, we hope you will support us through a subscription. Please click here to subscribe.

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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Anglais

Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar is the Latest to Hatch in West Island’s Bubbling Restaurant Scene

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Wings are the thing at the latest restaurant to make its mark on Montreal’s West Island: Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar.

At the buzzy new Dollard-Des Ormeaux eatery, the bird limbs come aplenty, with a menu listing eleven “wet & messy” wings, including smoked apple habanero, sriracha lime, and cherry cola BBQ; and four — cacio e pepe, ketchups chip, Nashville hot, and the garlicky, lemon pepper “vampire slayer” — dry rub flavours. They come 10 for $18 or 20 for $34, plus the option of ranch, parmesan, or blue cheese dipping sauce.

Tacos, nachos, poutines (one made with bone marrow, another with tater tots), smashed burgers, salads, and a classic buttermilk fried chicken dinner are just sampling of the other dishes that round out the offering. On the drinks side, there are cocktails, sangrias, and spiked milkshakes in popular chocolate bar flavours: After Eight, Skor, Bounty, or Reeses.

Opened on July 5, Birdhouse is among a recent influx of restaurants to grace the island’s western end, including birria taco slinger Tacos Don Rigo and barbecue joint Smoke Box — a double whammy in the same Pierrefonds area strip mall. That comes in addition to plans for Fairview Pointe Claire’s incoming “District Gourmand” (slated to usher in Tommy Café), and, of course, a number of the area’s longer-standing stalwarts — from southern belle Bistro Nolah to old-school casse-croûte Smoked Meat Pete — that have helped bolster the West Island’s culinary credentials.

The brand-new Brunswick Boulevard restaurant is the brainchild of Montreal entrepreneur Lorne Schwartz, restaurateur George Massouras (of Madisons and Arahova Souvlaki), and among the other partners involved, Brahm Mauer, son of the founder of beloved buffalo hot wings expert Wings ‘n’ Things. Mauer has tried his hand at reviving the original Wings ‘n’ Things recipe — the restaurant originally opened in 1986 — over the years, including with a Royalmount Avenue location in 2012, then as a roaming summertime food truck and NDG pop-up. That same truck has now been made over with a Birdhouse-branded livery to be deployed for private events.

A likely draw to many, Birdhouse is reprising the “famous flavours, untouched” of the once-upon-a-time NDG staple, represented on its menu as “The Legendary WNT Buffalo” chicken wing.

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