Feature - Spring 2018

Photo Credit: Ministry of Children and Youth Services

Interview with Michael Coteau

By OPSBA Staff

Michael Coteau was first elected to the legislature in 2011 as the MPP for Don Valley East. He was re-elected in 2014.

He currently serves as Minister of Children and Youth Services, as well as Minister Responsible for Anti-Racism. Prior to entering government, Minister Coteau served as a school board trustee for almost eight years with the Toronto District School Board.

Minister Coteau joined OPSBA's Board of Directors meeting on September 22, 2017, for a wide-ranging discussion on the government's Education Equity Action Plan and Ontario's children and youth services sector. Following the meeting he sat down for a Q&A session with OPSBA staff.

Q: In addition to being the Minister of Children and Youth Services, you are also the Minister responsible for the newly created Anti-Racism Directorate.  What is the purpose of the Directorate and what is the connection between the Directorate and the Equity Secretariat?

As a father and representative of kids here in Ontario, I have a vision for this province where all children have access to the services and support that they need at home, at school and in the community. Schools play an important role in bringing this vision to life, because schools shape the futures of our children – and in turn, the future of our entire province and country.

Ontario's Anti-Racism Directorate (ARD) was established in February 2016 to recognize systemic racism and challenge it head-on so that everyone can fully participate in society. This past March, we launched A Better Way Forward: Ontario's 3-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan, which is the government's commitment to identify and remove systemic barriers and advance racial equity for all. The plan outlines the strategies, initiatives and tools we need to target systemic racism. Our plan takes a whole-of-government approach to building racial equity in Ontario. Just recently, the Minister of Education announced the Education Equity Action Plan, a roadmap to identify and eliminate discriminatory practices, systemic barriers and bias from schools in order to support all students. This plan will support a process for collaboratively producing programs that that will better support youth in the future and examine school practices so that they reflect and respond to the diversity of all students and staff. This is directly in line with our government's 3-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan and the Ontario Black Youth Action Plan.

Q: The province's 3-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan was developed through the work of the Directorate.  School boards have been extremely supportive of the Ministry of Education's Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy to help foster learning and working environments that are free of discriminatory biases and systemic barriers in order to support the achievement and well-being of all students. Given that background, what role do you see school boards and trustees playing in support of the Anti-Racism Strategic Plan?

As a former school board trustee, I know the important role that trustees play in our education system. Trustees can and should provide active leadership in rooting out racism and be champions of our anti-racism strategies and tools. Educators also have a remarkable opportunity to be a part of this process, because they can look at policies and programs through a lens of fairness and equity. Educators are uniquely positioned to address disparate outcomes and support children and youth so that they can reach their full potential. Together, we all play a large role in shaping the experiences for the future success of Ontario's children and youth.

Q: The collection of disaggregated data has been identified as an important and useful tool to help identify and address inequities and systemic barriers that can have a negative impact on some children and youth. How do you see that type of data being used by your Ministry to support child and youth well-being and achievement? This strategy cuts across a number of Ministries. Is there a guideline or framework for data collection?

There's an old saying. No data, no problem, no solution. Back when I was a trustee with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Trustee Bruce Davis and I introduced a motion to collect race-based data. It opened up a whole new approach to policy making. It increased the accountability of the school board and strengthened its transparency. We learned that around 40 per cent of Black students were not graduating at the TDSB because of that work. Here we are, more than a decade later and the TDSB has changed its entire approach on how it works to achieve equity. So I believe, if we are going to collect data, we can make change and hold systems accountable.

We're going to start doing this in government too. Collecting data is vital because you can't address a problem if you don't know exactly where and what it is. We are currently piloting the race-based data standards and guidelines in the child welfare, justice, health and education (K-12). The pilot phase will help us assess the readiness of public sector organizations to begin collecting race-based data, and explore options like mandating race data collection.

And more specifically, in my Ministry, we're going to start requiring children's aid societies and youth justice services to collect and report identity-based data, including race, in the near future to support system planning and the delivery of culturally appropriate services. Some societies are already collecting data based on race and ethnicity — but we need to standardize and expand this practice across all societies.

Q: Your Ministry is responsible for Ontario's Middle Years Strategy aimed at bridging the existing frameworks for the early years and youth and supporting the well-being and positive development of children in the middle years (age 6-12). It was supposed to launch over the summer. Can you provide an update on the strategy? What role if any, will the Ministry of Education play in its implementation and how do you see school boards and trustees supporting it?

Young people spend their middle years in school. And it's during these years that they develop healthy habits and behaviours, as well as their sense of who they are and what they want to be. Schools play an integral role in their development. For that very reason, we are working very closely with the Ministry of Education on the Middle Years Strategy.

Our government is releasing the Middle Years Strategy this fall to help support these children and their families at this critical age. The Strategy includes new research and indicators of well-being that will help families, service providers, educators and other caring adults to better understand the opportunities and challenges that face this group of young people. Our Strategy encourages family-focused collaboration across sectors so that children adopt healthy behaviours, have a positive sense of identity, and are set on a trajectory for happy, well-rounded and productive lives. The Middle Years Strategy brings service providers, government, and the non-profit sector together with families to improve programs and policies for children.

The Strategy includes educational outcomes that the Ministry of Education, school boards, teachers and families can work towards. For example:

    • Creating safe, inclusive and accepting schools and communities;
    • Teaching children to wisely use social media and technology;
    • Motivating children and instilling a love of learning;
    • Early identification and support for children with special needs or learning challenges; and
    • Supporting the flexible, experiential, inclusive and strengths-based learning environments that respond to individual learning needs.

Q: You launched a new Ontario Autism Program this year to improve services for children and youth with ASD and increasing support opportunities from qualified professionals.  We know however, that wait times to access those services are an increasing challenge. What is the status of waitlists for children to access IBI/ABA treatments and what is being done to reduce those wait times?

I have travelled across Ontario to speak to families. One of the things I heard loud and clear was that once a child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the system is very complex. We needed to change that. So our government invested an unprecedented half-billion dollars to expand and improve services and supports for children and youth with ASD and their families.

In the new Ontario Autism Program, families will have consistency, choice and confidence in their child's care. Services will be based on the needs and strengths of a child or youth, regardless of age. All families will be actively engaged in their child's assessment, goal setting and intervention planning.

When it comes to waitlists, we are increasing the number of treatment spaces so more children with autism can receive services sooner. Our goal is to reduce wait times for service to less than six months within five years.

We are also providing a Direct Funding Option to parents. What that means is the actual allocation of funds will be given to families to purchase services through private providers versus the direct service that has been an option. Parents will have choice. If they want to have direct funding they can go in that direction, but if they like the direct service they can stay with that. This is a huge win for parents and children with autism because it puts the choice back into the hands of families.

Q: Advancing Reconciliation: First Nation, Métis and Inuit Education is one of OPSBA's leading priorities.  With the recent and increased focus on the mental health, safety and well-being of Indigenous students who attend school off reserve (for example, in Thunder Bay), can you tell us what your Ministry has in place specifically to support Indigenous Children and Youth?

This summer I was in Kenora meeting with Grand Council Treaty 3. We signed a historic agreement to transform services for young people, moving service delivery from government, back into the hands of the community. It was a historic announcement, the first of its kind in Ontario. We need to be doing more of this. Nobody knows how better to care for Indigenous youth than the community itself.

In recognition of the unique needs of Indigenous communities, our government continues to make new investments in culturally appropriate mental health supports for Indigenous children and youth. And through the Ontario Indigenous Children and Youth Strategy (OICYS), we are working with First Nations, Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous partners to fundamentally transform how services are governed, designed and delivered.

By 2019, we will have invested $23 million in tele-mental health services, Indigenous mental health and addictions workers and supports for students in First Nations schools and cultural and land-based training. This means more youth engagement initiatives in the community and skills training and engagement directly with Elders in the community.

We also expanded the Ontario Student Nutrition Program in over 120 educational settings in First Nations communities to give children and youth access to a healthy diet that supports their learning and development. Last year alone, we invested more than $4 million to support the Student Nutrition Program in First Nations Communities so that all young people can reach their full potential.