Ontario students receive free menstrual products as part of the agreement with Shoppers Drug Mart

The Ontario government says it has partnered with Shoppers Drug Mart to provide free menstrual products to students across the province beginning this fall.

“The partnership will benefit students who need menstrual products and cannot afford or access them, resulting in inability to attend school and other activities,” the provincial government said in a press release.

The agreement will mean that Shoppers Drug Mart will supply six million important hygiene items for free, annually, to school boards in Ontario for at least the next three years. For now, there will only be period pillows available, though the plan will eventually also include tampons.

Boards will have estimates of where the products will be distributed based on local needs, the province said.

“Through the strong advocacy of young leaders in our schools, it has become extremely clear that menstrual products are a necessity, not a luxury,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a press release.

“This agreement will help remove barriers for women and girls by giving them free access to school products.”

In 2019, BC mandated free menstrual products in all public school bathrooms, saying at the time that it was the first province to do so. Since then, Nova Scotia and PEI have also made them available to students.

Years of push from Ontario organizations

A number of organizations had called on Ontario to do the same, including groups like Bleed the North and the Toronto Youth Cabinet.

The latter had sent a letter to Lecce on March 8 this year, pointing out that many women are struggling to afford period products.

Referring to a Plan International Canada report, the group said 83 percent of women under the age of 25 surveyed say not having access to menstrual products prevented them from fully participating in school activities. About 70 percent said they missed school or work because of their period.

“This is a long time ago,” said Stephen Mensah, the current executive director of the Toronto Youth Cabinet, an advisory body to the city council.

Mensah says his group is satisfied but would like to see menstrual products available in female, male and gender-neutral bathrooms and see a greater focus on including discussions about menstruation in the Ontario curriculum.

“At the end of the day, these conversations are not normalized,” Mensah said. “To remove this stigma and that shame, education will be very crucial.”

Danielle Kaftarian is operations manager at Periodepungen. She wonders if the 6 million pillows a year will be enough to take care of every student who needs them. (CBC)

Danielle Kaftarian agrees that this is a good first step – with little room for improvement.

Kaftarian is the operations manager for Period Purse, a group that started when the founder began handing out free menstrual products to people experiencing homelessness.

She says the number of promised pillows drops somewhat briefly and explains that it breaks down to 10 pillows per. Student per year.

“Those who menstruate know you can go through it in one cycle,” she said.

NDP called for free pillows and tampons in 2019

Some criticism also comes from Ontario NDP education critic Marit Stiles, who released a release Friday morning.

Stiles called the move “an important step” and a victory for “students, organizations and school boards that have struggled for years”, but said it both did not go far enough and was not put in place quickly enough.

“It does not guarantee that all schools will have an adequate or dedicated supply of periodic products and will not give students sufficient choice,” she wrote.

Stiles had urged the province to start providing free menstrual products in schools in a proposal three years ago.

“Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce could have adopted my proposal, submitted to the legislature in June 2019 … but they would not spend the money,” she wrote on Friday.

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