Premier makes stop at “Launch Centre” in Seaway Mall
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
It is an odd thing to be serenaded by drumming—you don’t envision Romeo rat-ta-tat-tatting below Juliet’s window—but Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne beamed gamely as Notre Dame’s drum line boomed at her arrival at the Seaway Mall last Thursday morning.
As the band thundered away, Wynne stepped out of her black SUV and stood with her hands behind her back, watching the musicians. When they had finished, she applauded happily, and then posed in front of the group while pictures were taken.
The Premier stopped at the mall during her day-long Niagara trip, which also included appearances in Niagara Falls and Lincoln. The site of the Seaway visit was the new “Niagara Launch Centre,” a tech skills hub for students of Catholic high schools in Niagara.
A crowd of 100—a mix of politicians, business representatives, and those from the school board—assembled in the centre, which has been carved out of the back of the old Zellers department store.
Students were still working on their projects as the crowd waited for Wynne to enter, the room full of the sounds of pneumatic pumps and wrenches, electric sanders and drills. One student was trying to pry a hubcap from a wheel rim next to a stage light that was pointed at the empty podium. “Maybe we better stop for now,” a teacher said to him.
The air smelled of axle grease and sawdust. Wynne’s security team, conspicuous in their chunky suits and earpieces, looked anxiously at the door.
When the Premier had made it through the hallway and into the shop, which was wide and ran for several hundred feet, she was immediately whisked away on a tour of the machines. The crowd, still waiting, talked among themselves and shuffled their feet.
“I’m surprised that there weren’t protestors outside,” one man said to his friend. “Last year, when she visited that daycare in Fonthill, there were a bunch of protestors.”
His friend frowned. “Yeah, but Fonthill’s full of…” he trailed off.
Students working on a car suspended in mid-air behind the podium put down their tools and moved to a sink, washing their hands of oil, presumably in anticipation of a ministerial handshake.
Wynne was still at the back of the shop, looking at a table that was being worked on. One student seemed determined to carry on sanding away and keeping his back to the Premier for most of the time that she was standing nearby. She moved on to the welding section at the room’s end, where flashes of blue were bursting from behind a black curtain.
As Wynne was led back to the front of the room, towards the waiting crowd, the students gradually stopped what they were doing and the sounds quieted down.
At last, the Catholic board’s Director of Education John Crocco came to the microphone and began the speaking agenda.
“When we gather together, in the Catholic system, we begin with a prayer,” he said, beckoning the students forward who had been selected to read. The observant in the crowd crossed themselves and the Premier looked down. A Mohawk language instructor, John Henlock, was invited to to the podium to provide a land acknowledgement.
“We want to remember that there were people living here for thousands of years before contact—and that we’re still here,” he said. “And it’s awesome that we can be together on shared lands with our shared history.”
Once Henlock had finished, a series of involved persons spoke, including the school board’s chair, Father Paul MacNeil. Crocco announced that it was MacNeil’s birthday, and led the crowd in an awkwardly rendered of “Happy Birthday.” When the “dear ____” part arrived, half of the singers sang “Paul,” while the other half said “Father,” and though everyone laughed-off the confusion, they were evidently happy to move on.
Marco Maggezeni, a technical education consultant for the board, described the impetus for creating the centre.
“We wanted to give students the opportunity to say to themselves, ‘I want to be a bricklayer. I want to be a carpenter,” he said. “There are skilled manufacturing jobs out there, and we hope that this centre will help our students prepare for them.”
Maggezeni briefly listed some of the qualifications that students can acquire through the program, including a valid welding certificate.
When it was Wynne’s turn to speak, she began by thanking “everyone who said ‘yes’ to this project.” She remembered her days in high school, when students were “siloed” into various streams, including the trades. In the past several decades, shop classes have disappeared from many schools.
“We’re trying to bring these classes back, to do away with the artificial separation between different streams of study,” Wynne said.
She looked at the crowd of students behind her.
“Where’s Josh? There you are.”
A tall student with long blonde hair stepped forward.
“I was talking to Josh during my tour,” Wynne continued. “And I asked him what he liked about the program. And he said, ‘This place is my school.’ That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
Wynne talked about how much public education meant to her. “Health care is important, and we spend more on it [than education]” she said, “but if we get schools right, we get everything else right too.”
When she wrapped up, at 12:30, the event was only 15 minutes behind schedule. Crocco checked his watch when he again took the microphone. “Before the Premier moves on to the other room, where she’ll be for…fourteen minutes, students would like to present her with some gifts to thank her for visiting.”
The students came forward and handed Wynne two plaques made out of cuttings from an old oak tree. Wynne grinned and thanked them, before handing the plaques off to an aide who quickly carried them from the room.
Next, a black cloth was pulled from a table, revealing a wood desk handmade by students at the centre.
“A new work desk for you,” Crocco said. Wynne looked delighted. “Oh my goodness,” she said. “We’ll have to find someplace special for it.”
“I don’t know how, but we’ll find a way to get it in your SUV to go home,” Crocco assured her.
Wynne laughed. “Security is going to have a great time figuring that out. Put it on the roof!”
The news releases announcing Wynne’s day in Niagara carried a strict “No Media Availability” proviso, something that her Press Secretary attributed to the tight schedule, but Wynne did make the time for a Q&A with students.
In a room beside the shop, a few dozen kids sat at tables, eating sandwiches that had been arranged for them, while Wynne stood among them. Half of the crowd in the shop had followed her over, and eyed the food hungrily.
“What made you want to get in to politics?” one student asked.
“That’s a good question,” Wynne said, doing an effective job pretending that she hadn’t answered the same query an infinite number of times before. Once she had replied (“education”), Wynne looked for more hands in the crowd. “Now’s your chance,” she said. No more went up.
“All right then, thanks for those. I’ll come around and speak to the all the tables now.”
The spectators again broke their silence. One member of Wynne’s security detail raised a wrist to her mouth and pressed a button to speak.
“The Premier will be leaving in five minutes,” she said into her sleeve. She was right.