Many of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s budget cuts have been bad for our planet.  Back in April, we named his budget “the most anti-environmental budget since Walkerton”. Now, with a new perspective, here is a guest blog from Oakville high school senior Ciara Rieder. This is her story of how education funding cuts ended her school’s world-class environmental leadership program.

Oakville teen, Ciara Rieder.

Earlier this year, my Halton region, Ontario, school board cut its Environmental Leadership high school programs: the Bronte Creek Project (BCP), for students in grades 11 and 12, and Trailhead, for students in grades 9 and 10. These experiential learning programs were located in a natural setting where students learned to respect and preserve the environment. 

BCP had existed for 35 years and was described as being “world class” and “life-changing”. 

They were for me.

My nature name is Cherry (we have nature names in the program), though my real name is Ciara. I hope to go to University to study art and the environment. 

I have social anxiety, which was made a hundred times worse by my high school experience. In my first high school I was called abusive names, slammed into lockers and targeted during gym class. I had high stress levels all the time and cried almost every day. I moved to a new school, which was better but there was still a lot of cyber and verbal bullying. Because of this, I worked outside of class a lot on my own. I am an introvert, and this just made me feel excluded. I felt that nobody liked me. My anxiety was getting worse day by day. It got so bad I stopped eating breakfast for four months straight because I was worried I might throw it up. Imagine that.

Then I went on to BCP at the start of February 2019 and everything changed

It was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t have traded for anything. My classmates and I learned to connect with, respect and care for nature. We went outside every day, on hikes or to our personal magic spots. We met First Nations elders who taught us that we are a part of nature, not separate from it. We mentored younger students in a program called Earthkeepers. 

Fresh air makes you feel much happier and being outside is great for your mind, soul and body. Many other students in my program were bullied in school, too, but we all worked well together and respected each other here.

We made friendships in this program that will last a lifetime. Thousands of students who have passed through the Bronte Creek Project say it changed their lives. It is a judgment-free school. Students are given a chance to fit in and become friends by being shown a different side to school, a different side to life in general. Being in nature allows you to see things clearly and learn better.

Environmental education programs, like the one I participated in, help to prepare my generation for today’s reality: we have to understand our environment to stop the climate crisis and be prepared for the green economy. These programs also address another major problem faced by young people in schools: bullying. They are the answer to the essential educational needs of today and we are fighting to save them. 

The school board says budget cuts forced them to end many programs, but we know this type of program should never be cut.  

I have gone to therapy to get help in dealing with bullying and the anxiety it has caused me. It helped a bit but I was trying to deal with other people’s problems (the bullies). They made me feel bad because they weren’t at peace with themselves. Being in nature made all that melt away and I could see things clearly. It has been scientifically shown that exposure to nature, even looking at pictures of it, has a positive effect on people. This is very obvious when you look at my experience and those of my fellow students at BCP. Every kid should have this chance because it has such a positive impact on your body and mind.

My peers and family have taken a lot of steps to try to save these programs, from an online petition (over 2,000 signatures) to getting support from prominent politicians, environmentalists, children’s mental health experts and other influential people. We have presented at three separate board meetings and received a lot of media attention. 

But our efforts to preserve our environmental leadership programs were unsuccessful and the programs were cut. I’m back at my regular high school now for my final year. The positive effects of BCP have been lasting for me and I am a stronger person than before. I haven’t been bullied and my social anxiety is way down. I think my experience illustrates how BCP is a fantastic model for education. Learning in a natural setting instills environmental awareness as well as self-esteem and personal wellness.  

I was upset and am still sad our programs were cancelled, but all of us who fought to save them feel we have created so much awareness of their value. We are certain that someday, in a different political climate, they will return and provide a great experience for others. We will continue to fight for what we believe in and what is needed for our future—and for the future of our planet.

From my perspective, environmental stewardship education is so important that I would like to be involved in advocating for the wide adoption of this type of education, not just in Canada, but globally. Our petition drew interest from people all around the world. I am inspired by Greta Thunberg. She has shown me that one person can make a difference, no matter who they are.