This article has been edited to correct several spelling errors.
Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry MPP Jim McDonell is standing behind his staff member’s decision to call the police on a group of parents came into his Cornwall constituency office with their children on Tuesday.
The parents came in to demand they get to speak to someone about the changes the Progressive-Conservative government is making to the funding model for therapy and support programs for kids with autism.
McDonell himself is recovering from hip surgery and was not at the office, but when the parents refused to leave until someone spoke with them, the situation became testy. Cornwall police were summoned to have the parents and their children removed.
In a statement issued Thursday, McDonell did not apologize for the incident, as some people in Cornwall have been demanding. Instead, he indicated he understands people were upset, but also his staff did not feel safe, which is why they called the police.
“Many times, these discussions are very emotional, and those emotions can run high. I will always ensure that both my constituents and my staff feel safe during these meetings. In the case that occurred this week, there were many people who entered the office space, and my staff felt that they needed support to ensure their safety,” said McDonell.
McDonell also said his office has set up a follow-up meeting with the parents, which he said he looks forward to. The Standard-Freeholder spoke to one of the parents who went to the MPP’s office, Krysta Ryan, who said she has not yet been contacted about a follow-up meeting and finds McDonell’s response unsatisfactory.
“I would like to see an actual response and not just something he’s reading that sounds like what every other Progressive Conservative politician has said,” replied Ryan. “I have not been contacted by his office, and the fact that they think that the police were necessary to maintain a safe environment is disgusting.”
McDonell’s executive assistant, Marilyn McMahon-Ayerst, declined to comment on what happened at the constituency office, so the narrative of what happened there comes primarily from Ryan’s recollection of events.
A bit after 3 p.m. on Tuesday Ryan and two friends who, like her, have children with severe forms of autism, arrived at the office in Cornwall. They had brought their children and demanded to speak with someone with in-depth knowledge of the autism funding changes and their impact on services provided through the education system.
“I went in, knowing he was ill … and said ‘I understand he’s ill, but I just want to talk to someone about the changes to the education system along with the autism plan,’” recalled Ryan.
A staffer went into an interior office and then re-emerged to tell the parents that there was no one available to speak with them, and offered to take their information and have someone contact them.
Ryan said she agreed, and then proceeded to lay out her concerns about the autism funding changes, including the fact her five-year-old son depends heavily on public support services and therapy. The funding changes that are set to come into effect next months, she said, means he will lose access to the support he needs.
According to Ryan, while she was speaking to the staffer, one of the children began playing with the blinds inside the office. All the children were autistic and non-verbal.
She said McMahon-Ayerst emerged from her own office, told them to stop messing with the blinds and that the group of them needed to leave.
Three Cornwall Police Service officers arrived at the scene and asked the parents to wait outside the office. No charges were laid, and Ryan praised the officers for their professionalism. But she had harsher words for McMahon-Ayerst.
“I think part of it was that she over-reacted and frankly, I think she used the tactics she did to try and bully the parents,” said Ryan.
“I just wanted to speak to somebody, whether it was an assistant, someone to take down our information, or anyone with first-hand knowledge of the changes that can’t be misconstrued, but no one wanted to take the time to clarify anything,” she said.
The changes being made to the autism programming in Ontario are fairly opaque to those unfamiliar with the system, but the Progressive-Conservatives are presenting them as necessary to fix the long wait lists experienced by other parents of children with autism the Liberal government failed to address. This was a point McDonell emphasized in his statement.
— with files from Megan Gillis