The position of Student Trustee first began in the early 1990s when the Ontario provincial government, under Premier Bob Rae, appointed a Royal Commission on Learning to explore innovative ways of revitalizing the province’s education system. In its final report published in December 1994 titled “For the Love of Learning” the Commission recommended sweeping changes that would revolutionize the Education Act. Among the many recommendations was the implementation of a student member on all school boards in the province who would be able to vote.
The final report of the commission was tabled in January 1995 just as Premier Bob Rae was reaching the end of his term. In the spring of 1995, the Progressive Conservatives, under the leadership of Premier Mike Harris, were elected. They promised significant changes in the education system and based much of their campaign on the recommendations made by the Royal Commission on Learning. It became increasingly evident that changes to the Education Act would be necessary to accomplish the vision and goals that were set out.
Shortly after the summer of 1997, the provincial government introduced Bill 160, The Education Quality Improvement Act. Bill 160 included drastic changes to the education system, including the transfer of much of the power from school boards to the provincial government, and the probability of budget and labour cuts. Such changes were not well received from teachers’ unions and consequently led to a strike that marked one of the largest organized labour disruptions in North American history. The legislation passed, with few amendments made despite the obvious discord.
Among the voluminous changes set out by Bill 160 was the creation of a “Pupil Representative”, now referred to as a Student Trustee. This marked the first time in Canadian history that political representation by youth was legislatively assured. Pupil Representatives were to provide student representation on district school boards, but the legislation specifically prohibited Student Trustees from acquiring voting rights or attending meetings closed to the public. The legislation also permitted boards to design and implement policies that reflected their own visions of the Pupil Representative. Although the bill laid out guidelines and restrictions, school boards were given a great deal of flexibility to meet these new requirements. As a result, the position of Student Trustee varied across the province and is presently unique in every board.
By the start of the 1998/1999 school year, every school board in Ontario had chosen a Student Trustee to represent the student population at their board table. While some boards welcomed Student Trustees, others were more reluctant to listen to students. As time went on, policies evolved in each board to best accommodate Student Trustees and provide opportunities to consult the student body. Although much of the uncertainty surrounding the inclusion of Student Trustees in the education system had eventually dispersed, some inconsistencies still existed between different school boards. When the 2000/2001 school year began, the need for student representation at the board table was increasingly evident. Labour disputes between teachers’ unions and the provincial government were deteriorating the quality of school communities in Ontario. Students’ voices were being lost in the political rhetoric and jargon.
By the end of September of that year, several Student Trustees who had been re-elected in their respective school boards discussed the need to create an association of Student Trustees either with or without the guidance of the Ministry of Education. Early on in the process, it was decided to invite Student Trustees from the Catholic and Francophone district school boards to a founding meeting despite no formal contracts in any of those boards. It was thought that representation from all branches of publicly funded education would expand experience and understanding. By providing a unified voice, the movement was a contrast to the deteriorating situation among other education groups in the province. Such an association would stand out because it would be the only organization to represent students from French, English, Catholic, and Public school boards.
In 2011, three former Student Trustees from Ontario realized the need for Student Trustees to be nationalized. These alumni began consulting with policymakers and academic experts across Canada. It became clear that there was an inherent gap in the policy-making process in provinces without a student representative sitting at the board table. Thus, Student Voice Initiative was born.
Since its inception, SVI has advocated both locally and provincially for the position of a Student Trustee to be implemented. SVI’s vision is to see the eventual rollout of Student Trustees in every school board in Canada. Upon creating a Board of Advisors of reputable education advocates, entrepreneurs, and policy experts as well as seeking the advice of education thought leaders, we have been successful in working with the Vancouver School Board (School District No. 39) and the Sunshine Coast School District (School District No. 46) to implement the role in British Columbia. SVI has also supported the creation of a democratically-elected student representative in Quebec at the Lester B. Pearson School Board, and in Alberta at the Edmonton Public Schools board.
Scaling quickly to support the national enthusiasm and dialogue around Student Trustees, we are a team comprised of an Executive Council of five members, a Board of Directors, and Student Ambassadors within many provinces in Canada.