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School boards ‘blindsided’ as Ford government slashes program funding

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The Ford government has cut millions in funding for programs that provide after-school jobs for needy teens, classroom tutors for kids, “student success” supports for racialized youth as well as a project focusing on Indigenous issues, the Star has learned.

The province’s 72 school boards received emails late Friday with the list of programs to be cut or that will see funding reduced, and have been scrambling all weekend to figure out the financial impact, given the specialized grant money was promised by the previous Liberal government last March and may have already been spent.

Not all boards necessarily run each of the axed programs, and it may take weeks before each is able to clarify how it will impact students.

“I have serious concerns,” said Maria Rizzo, chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

“I’m sick to my stomach because I’m afraid of the steps that we’ve taken on poverty, on Indigenous education, and even in the Focus on Youth program – we’ve hired our kids, in the most vulnerable school communities, in the neediest neighbourhoods, just to give them a leg up.”

The EPO grant — which is taking a $25 million hit — “has a long track record of wasteful spending, overspending and millions of dollars of unfunded commitments,” said Kayla Iafelice.

“We have performed a thorough review of the EPO Fund to ensure that it better aligns with the needs and priorities of Ontario parents, teachers and students while respecting taxpayer dollars,” she said via email.

For this school year, the EPO (Education Programs — Other) will be $400 million.

Toronto District School Board Chair Robin Pilkey said staff were called into work Saturday to have a look at the numerous emails and attachments sent by the government about the EPO grants – which fund “other” education programs that are typically tied to government priorities and initiatives, and separate from general education grants.

“I would hope that we are not going to be penalized in the middle of the year,” Pilkey said. The government “told people in March that they would get all these EPO grants, and now it’s December.”

“At this point, we don’t have any idea what the dollars are that are attached” to the cancelled programs in the Toronto board, she added. “The information is not great at this point – but there seems to be about 10 that they’re cancelling.”

“Right now, we’re not sure if it’s raising any alarm bells. We’re still trying to figure it out,” she said Saturday.

“I think it could have been done better, and I think the information the boards could have received could have been a lot clearer,” she also said. “I think until we can figure out the exact amount of money, there will be concerns.”

The timing, however, “is bizarre to me,” Pilkey added.

Rizzo said the government only just wrapped up its widespread public consultations on the education system on Saturday, and she would have expected the ministry to listen to what parents want before making such decisions.

“I am truly blindsided by this,” she added.

Friday’s email from the Ministry of Education, obtained by the Star, says it is “committed to supporting our students, so they have the skills to succeed in school, and in life,” but also that “one of the government’s top priorities is making life more affordable for individuals and families – while restoring trust, transparency and accountability to Ontario’s finances.”

It notes the provinces $14.5 billion deficit “and that it “requires substantial transformation for the province to return to a balanced budget. This means that Ontario needs to modernize the way education is funded and make sure that precious tax dollars are having the greatest impact in the classroom.”

Rizzo said the Toronto Catholic board’s international languages instruction is safe, for this year – though noting funding was cut in half after the Progressive Conservative government took office, dropping from $6 million to $3 million. “Now we have a deficit,” she said.

However, because the government had only been in office for 20 days when the board learned of the cutback, she blames the bureaucracy.

“I’m not going to blame the government for doing something they didn’t even know they did,” she added.

Focus on Youth is a program that funds part-time positions for students who live in needy neighbourhoods to work with youth, and was started by the Liberals after a summer of deadly violence involving Toronto youth.

The summer program will continue, but the after-school one will not.

“Believe me when I say to you, it’s a great program,” Rizzo said.

The government’s intentions are not clear, and these cuts “affect schools and parents and communities and kids. Wouldn’t you want to be open and transparent?”

In an email to Toronto public board trustees, obtained by the Star, Director of Education John Malloy said the province will continue to provide funding for the Focus on Youth summer program, updates to broadband, human rights and equity advisers, after school skills and development programs and other mental health and math supports.

Grants were cancelled for tutors in the classroom, student success leaders for racialized students, Indigenous-focused collaborative inquiry, and support for daily physical activity for elementary and secondary students, as well as a program that is for “ensuring equitable access to post-secondary education.”

The Toronto board says such initiatives as community use of schools, Indigenous student leadership, as well as “parent reaching out” grants were not mentioned.

In the Peel District School Board, staff were working to figure out what the changes mean.

“Finance and other Peel District School Board staff are currently reviewing information received from the Ministry of Education on Friday,” said Director of Education Peter Joshua in a statement to the Star.

“It will take some time to analyze and identify the impacts of the ministry’s funding decisions on programs and initiatives planned for the 2018-19 school year. When we’ve determined these impacts, we will communicate them to those who are affected by the changes in funding, including staff, students and families,” Joshua said.

The government memo says it has “carefully reviewed all ministry programs – including all transfer payments – and the government is now focused on making the necessary decisions to reduce spending wherever possible. At the same time, Ontario is making sure that students have what they need to feel safe, supported, and be successful in school.

“At this time, the government has not made any decisions regarding the 2019-20 fiscal year. However, the government will keep balancing the budget as a top priority, and will continue to communicate with you in a timely and transparent manner.”

NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles said “these cuts are going to be deeply felt by children in classrooms. For Doug Ford to take the axe to our kids’ schools is inexcusable.”

Stiles, a former Toronto school board trustee, said “our children need more opportunities and resources — not fewer.”

The education minister’s office said the EPO funding decisions were based on whether projects “provided direct support to students in the classroom” and if they could be “delivered in a more cost-effective mechanism” and had “successful outcomes in the past.”

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

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Anglais

‘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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