A northwestern Ontario politician is fighting for equal access to free menstrual products for Ontario’s First Nation school boards and their students.

Earlier this month, Ontario and Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced a new partnership with Shoppers Drug Mart to provide 6 million free menstrual products to Ontario school boards each year to address ‘period poverty’.

A 2019 survey by Plan International Canada showed that 63 per cent of women and girls have regularly or occasionally missed an activity because of their period, and 34 per cent have had to sacrifice something else in their monthly budget to afford menstrual products.

Ontario says the issue has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its financial challenges, and students who can’t afford menstrual products can experience a higher rate of absenteeism, challenges to fully engage in the classroom and negative health effects.

However, Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, who also serves as the NDP’s Indigenous and Treaty Relations Critic, notes you won’t receive any of the free products if you attend a school in a First Nation community, as they’re funded solely by the federal government.

“For those of us who live in the North, we often pay double for the same products found down here,” said Mamakwa during Question Period at Queen’s Park, noting a box of tampons can range from $16 to $45 in remote First Nation communities.

“[This] leaves people to choose between menstrual products and food security. Jurisdictional issues are once again creating division between First Nation schools and products. These products are offered to all school boards in Ontario, except First Nation schools. Why is this government discriminating against First Nation schools?”

Mamakwa notes Ontario’s move goes directly against Jordan’s Principle, which calls to ensure that all on and off-reserve First Nations youth have equal access to all government-funded public services.

In response, Education Minister Stephen Lecce notes Ontario has provided record amounts of funding to support Indigenous education in the province – however, that funding is for provincially-funded schools, not for those under the federal government’s jurisdiction.

“This is a very positive step forward that should be celebrated as we end a challenge that has kept many young students from going to school every day. This government resolved to fix it. Where the previous government and the New Democrats did nothing for 15 years, we took action.”

The free products are expected by late fall of this school year. The NDP tabled a motion in the legislature for Ontario to provide free menstrual products in schools in June of 2019, which was denied.