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By Zachary Roman
As an educator, Tess Prendergast said she's seen firsthand how devastating cuts to education funding can be.
She said Ontario classrooms are overcrowded, schools are understaffed and underfunded, and they're falling apart.
“Decision-making that has been made in regards to social services like health care and education… it has left a huge gap in our society and it has made me want to stand up and speak up for vulnerable persons,” said Prendergast.
Prendergast seeks to eliminate that gap in Ontario by running to be Dufferin-Caledon's next Member of Provincial Parliament with the New Democratic Party.
Born and raised in Scarborough, Prendergast moved to Dufferin in 2011 with her husband, who is a lawyer that practices charity and not-for-profit law. A French teacher and librarian at an Orangeville school, Prendergast has two children, is a leader with Scouts Canada, and is a “huge advocate for the environment.”
Prendergast said she's been interested in politics ever since she was a young girl and has always followed politics. As a librarian, she's used to connecting people with resources that are the best fit for them, and, if elected, she looks forward to connecting her constituents with the best government resources and programs for them.
“What really drove me to run is over the winter holiday, I was researching the Highway 413. I discovered Minister's Zoning Orders (MZOs) and that Ford could grant big developers a ‘Get Out of Jail Free' card, which allowed them to bypass environmental assessments, community planning and the provincial policy statement,” said Prendergast.
She found these zoning orders to be unfair. Prendergast is not opposed to growth, but is opposed to what she says are “big ticket” decisions being made that impact every Ontarian, that aren't being made transparently and equitably.
“I tell students, be the change you want to see… and if you see an injustice you need to stand up and speak for what's right,” said Prendergast. Through her campaign, and if elected, Prendergast strives to practice what she teaches.
“Us individuals that care about the planet, care about our society and the promotion of well-being, really need to stand up and speak and band together to create a more prosperous and hopeful Ontario,” said Prendergast.
Prendergast said the NDP will invest in a strong public education system by lowering class sizes, eliminating mandatory online credits for high school students, getting rid of EQAO testing and reinvesting the money saved in schools.
She said Ontario New Democrats also plan to hire new teachers and education staff for schools, clear the repair backlog on Ontario schools, and do all these things through a social and environmental lens with input from educational stakeholders.
Prendergast said she was incredibly disappointed with the Ford government's response to the pandemic as it related to schools. Due to the Conservatives not investing sooner in vaccines for education staff, she said, personal protective equipment for staff and students, expanded rapid testing, and ventilation in schools, Ontario had the longest school closures in North America.
She said younger students can't learn online like older students can, and early literacy rates have taken a huge hit — not to mention the mental health of all students in general.
Prendergast said the Ford government doesn't respect every day Ontarians, and that the NDP will work hard to fix problems in the province's education system.
Another issue important to Prendergast is health care. Her mom, a strong role model of hers, is a nurse who was a manager during the SARS Pandemic and went back to work when COVID-19 hit Canada. Prendergast said for her and the NDP, strong universal health care is a priority and she does not support privatization of health care.
“Right now, we have a different kind of problem and that is the retention of nursing staff in hospitals. The horrendous Bill 124 is impacting Ontario's ability to retain, respect, and honour the bargaining rights of our nurses. We need to repeal this bill and that is something that Andrea Horwath and the NDP will do,” said Prendergast.
“We need to treat nurses and frontline health care workers with dignity and respect. And as an educator, I know what it feels like to be in an industry where you've been taken advantage of these last four years, and you just have to show up and do your job. Now, health care workers are really in the thick of it and they are still battling with the sixth wave of the pandemic… we were told to take our masks off after the March Break and we saw a huge uptick in COVID cases within our school, huge absence rates with students and staff, and I know that hospitals are dealing with the repercussions.”
Prendergast said the NDP will focus on hiring new nurses, bringing nurses that left during the pandemic back, and making it easier for internationally-educated nurses to get certified and find work. She also said the NDP will invest in creating well-paying full-time jobs with benefits for personal support workers so they can live and work in the same area. She said this will also help increase the quality of home care in the province, as she believes people should be able to stay in their homes as long as they want.
“We want to take control of all long-term care centres, we want to bring them back into public hands,” said Prendergast. “We're looking at creating small community homes like they have in Europe with six to 10 beds, and they'd be within a residential community instead of the current warehouses that we're putting our vulnerable elders in right now.”
Prendergast said the Ford government's changes to the Ontario Autism Program have been devastating. She emphasized the importance of early intervention for an autistic child's success later in life, and said current government waitlists of five years make early invention impossible.
“Imagine if you had a child and they were diagnosed with autism, and you knew that starting any kind of therapies, essential therapies or programs early on would directly correlate to their future success, but they're not available to you and you cannot access the funding for years,” said Prendergast.
“It puts parents in a situation where they have to stress themselves financially if they're able to, or simply just wait with their hands tied. It is a system that is not working… we need to be looking towards a more inclusive Ontario that acknowledges and accepts autism as a regular part of life.”
Prendergast said she and the NDP will always prioritize people over profits. According to Prendergast, the NDP wants to bring actual affordable housing to Ontarians, not million-dollar mansions.
“We want to intensify in existing urban areas… that means saying no to urban boundary expansions. We want to make sure that we're building in existing areas where municipal services already exist and the infrastructure is there,” said Prendergast.
She said sprawl hurts taxpayers as once a developer moves out, sewage, roads, and upkeep for giant subdivisions is left to municipalities.
Prendergast ended her May 9 interview with the Citizen by saying she wanted to affirm her support for Dufferin-Caledon's LGBTQ+ and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities. While she's not a member of one of those communities herself, she wants people to know she's there to support them.
“I just wanted to express that I will be a representative for everyone that lives here,” said Prendergast.
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