The Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport have reneged on a promise of $500,000 in funding for an after-school music program for at-risk children. The half million dollars in additional funding was promised to Sistema Toronto by the previous Liberal government in May, before the provincial election. The announcement reversing the funding was made late last week.
Hilary Johnson, Sistema Toronto’s Managing Director, decried the move in a media interview. She emphasized Sistema’s value in a statement to a reporter for the Toronto Star, “After-school programming is huge in helping kids stay out of trouble,” she said. According to Johnson, most of the children in the program come from new immigrant families, and many are in foster care.
The $500,000 grant was part of a $21 million investment over three years announced by the former Ontario government. The money was slated specifically to promote access and exposure to arts education for Ontario students, including visual arts, dance, and drama, as well as music. Part of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport’s stated overall mandate is “championing participation in sport and recreation activities across Ontario.”
Sistema Toronto certainly fits the bill under that broad umbrella. The nonprofit organization provides after-school music instruction to 275 kids between the ages of 6 and 12 in the Parkdale, Jane-Finch, and East Scarborough regions — neighbourhoods with high child poverty rates. At no cost, children receive instruction from professional musicians, along with the instruments to learn and play, and a nutritious snack to hold them off till dinner.
All three centres have long waiting lists, and the extra funding would have allowed Sistema to add more at-risk children to the program. Sistema Toronto says they will have to cap waiting lists, cut teachers and staff, and cancel plans to buy new instruments.
The benefits of music education at an early age are well documented. They include improved motor and math skills, memory, not to say confidence and a sense of community. In at-risk neighbourhoods, they give kids an alternative to the often unfriendly streets, and a sense of direction and community to combat the lure of gangs. According to the organization’s statement, the students who participate in Sistema’s programming are 25 percent more likely to get higher scores on standardized tests.
Sistema, or El Sistema, more properly, is a global organization that operates in 55 countries worldwide. Founded by Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela in 1975, the organization firmly believes in the social and public health benefits of music education, and the power of music to create social change. The program’s success in enriching and developing the lives of children and their families spread across Venezuela and spawned the global network of organizations that now use the Sistema approach. Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is perhaps Sistema’s most famous alumnus. Dudamel is also the conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar (Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra,) the ensemble made up of young players who are learning through Sistema.
Mitzie Hunter, MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood, who made the original funding announcement back on May 8, 2018, joined with Parkdale-High Park MPP Bhutila Karpoche in issuing a statement calling for a reversal of the funding cut. “The Sistema program addresses the lack of quality educational programming available to these underserved communities and cancelling planned funding puts these children at risk of not reaching their full potential. I urge the Minister to reconsider this decision.”
Karpoche joined in condemning the move — and pointed the finger directly at the Ontario government. “Instead of providing support to communities that are struggling with some of the highest child poverty rates in Toronto, Doug Ford’s government has decided to pull the rug out from under at-risk children,” Karpoche’s statement read.
A spokesperson for MPP Sylvia Jones, the minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, issued a statement to the press late last week blaming the previous Liberal government.
“The day the election was called, the previous minister committed funding to this organization without going through the proper approval process. Unfortunately, Sistema does not meet the criteria for this grant and is not eligible for funding. It is unfortunate that the Liberals put Sistema in this position.”
Johnson, however, told reporters that the funding came as a result of lengthy consultations. She says that the Ministry’s statement is in “direct conflict” with the assurances the organization received both in writing and in one on one meetings.
The loss is significant, making up just over half of the organization’s $900,000 annual budget. Sistema Toronto has launched a crowdfunding campaign through CanadaHelps.org to help fill the breach. Several thousand dollars were donated on the first day.