Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Fredericton Students Help Deliver Major Autism Victory

OTTAWA - Political-science students at Leo Hayes High School scored a victory Tuesday as the autism motion they championed was approved in the House of Commons.

"My students are excited," said political-science teacher Greg Peters.

"They really have made a difference, if only a small one."

Last year's Grade 12 political-science class got the ball rolling by helping draft a private-member's motion that was proposed by Fredericton Liberal MLA Andy Scott.

This year's class closed the deal by lobbying MPs via e-mail.

"I thought this thing honestly would die on the order paper and a lot of my students did too," Peters said. "But they really wanted to craft something that would pass and make a difference. It has been a tremendous learning experience for them and for me too because I have never done anything else like this."

The experience has been an empowering one, he said.

"The kids have all said this is something they never really thought they could do. They thought they would pretend to do it. Now they think, 'Wow, we really can do this and people will listen to us,' which is great," he said.

"They learned an incredible amount about Parliamentary protocol and procedure generally and about private-members bills and motions specifically."

Motion No. 172 passed 231 to 45, with only the Bloc Quebeois MPs voting against it because they consider it an intrusion into provincial jurisdiction.

"It is an historic moment for the House of Commons and the federal government," said Scott. "Up until two weeks ago, the Department of Health was sending out letters saying this was a provincial responsibility. We have moved that a very long way."

Families with autistic children can face enormous bills for intense, one-on-one therapy, sometimes reaching $60,000 a year.

In New Brunswick, such treatment is covered by public-health insurance until children turn six, while Alberta offers the most generous program that covers the treatment until 18 years of age.

Autism can be a debilitating condition, condemning people to a life of institutional solitude as they lack the skills to communicate with others.

The original motion called on the government to establish a four-element national strategy that included funding, national standards, surveillance and research. The government amended it to ensure it is developed in consultation with the provinces.

"Now the community, myself and others will hold their feet to the fire and see that we get a national strategy," Scott said. "If we have an election in the spring, my guess is they will be under a great deal of pressure to announce a national strategy by that time."

Peters said he doesn't know whether the new class will take up a new project.

"It has taken up a huge amount of our time, but it certainly was worth it," he said.

"We would probably be a lot more efficient if we do it again."

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