Canada

The battle for Ontario's chools

Teachers pledge to continue their fight against the Tories

D’ARCY JENISH November 17 1997
Canada

The battle for Ontario's chools

Teachers pledge to continue their fight against the Tories

D’ARCY JENISH November 17 1997

The battle for Ontario's chools

Canada

Teachers pledge to continue their fight against the Tories

D’ARCY JENISH

Over the past few weeks, Jamie McAlpine and his wife, Ann, had several intense and emotional discussions across the kitchen table about the provincewide teachers’ strike that gave 2.1 million Ontario children an unscheduled holiday. The McAlpines, who live in a refurbished 19th-century farmhouse near the town of Orangeville, 90 km northwest of Toronto, are both teachers. But they held opposing views of the dispute, triggered by Bill 160—a highly contentious piece of legislation that would give the provincial government greater control of Ontario’s $14-billion education system.

She went out on strike. He crossed the picket line at Credit „ Meadows Elementary School in Orangeville and, along with < another teacher, provided lessons to as many as 24 students ÿ a day. The McAlpines’ marriage survived—‘There’s not g going to be a divorce because of Bill 160,” she said. But as the □ protest began to collapse late last week, the couple worried g about lingering fallout from the dispute. ‘Teachers are gog ing to be disgruntled and unhappy,” said Ann McAlpine. “I “ really hope we can keep politics out of the classroom.”

That may be easier said than done. Many of the province’s 126,000 teachers vowed to continue their fight against Bill 160 and Premier Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government. But they were divided over how to maintain pressure on the Tories—and how to end their protest. Last Thursday, leaders of three of Ontario’s five teachers’ unions—the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations, the Public School Teachers’ Federation and the Franco-Ontarian teachers’ association—announced that their members would return to class on Monday. And on Saturday, one of the two high-school teachers’ unions, the English Catholic Teachers’ Federation, also decided to end its strike. (The fifth union, the Secondary School Teachers’ Federation was scheduled to meet Sunday.) But despite the apparent consensus among union leaders, individual teachers were far from unanimous. ‘There’s a real split,” Eileen Lennon, president of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, told Maclean’s. “Some feel we’ve made our point. Others are much more militant and want to stay out as long as it takes.”

That much was evident during a Friday meeting at Toronto’s Hummingbird Centre, where about 3,000 Toronto elementaryschool teachers attended an information session. Although it had been called some time before, the meeting quickly became a forum for teachers to denounce the union leadership’s decision to return to work. While some welcomed that announcement, many others accused their leaders of abandoning the cause, shouting: ‘We won’t back down, we won’t back down.” Union leaders were eventually booed off the stage. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Grade 8 teacher Mario Godlewski. “I thought Canadians were

mild-mannered, calm and submissive, but this was the exact opposite. The leaders were made to walk the plank.”

But the word that some schools could reopen came as welcome news for parents who had been forced to scramble to find babysitters or day care for their children. And Education Minister Dave Johnson, who inherited the portfolio from John Snobelen on Oct. 10, just as the dispute over Bill 160 was escalating, appeared equally relieved. “I’m the happiest guy in the province,” he declared. The teachers, Johnson added, would have to accept that Bill 160 would become law. “I do hope that they all get back,” he said. “I do hope that they understand that they have had their say. Now, it’s time to get on.”

Bill 160, otherwise known as the Education Quality Improvement Act, will probably receive third and final reading during the legislative session that begins on Nov. 17, with only a handful of amendments announced last week in a futile bid to appease the teachers. The massive 226-page bill would, among other things, set class sizes at the current provincial averages—25 for elementary schools and 22 at the secondary level. It would cut preparation time for secondary-school teachers by about one-third to 50 minutes a day. And it would lengthen the school year by five days for primary students and 10 for high-school students by reducing the number of teachers’ professional development days, as well as the time set aside for exams. The government has argued throughout the dispute that such reforms are necessary to improve the quality of education in the province.

Critics charged that the bill was nothing more than a power grab aimed at stripping local school boards of their authority and giving the provincial government almost exclusive control over schooling

in Ontario. They also argued that the government was using education reform as a cloak to conceal its true agenda—cutting expenditures and laying off up to 10,000 teachers. Those charges gained credence when opposition politicians obtained a leaked document shortly before the strike, indicating that deputy education minister Veronica Lacey has a performance contract that would reward her for cutting $667 million from the education budget in the fiscal year beginning next April 1. Up to that point, Harris and other senior members of the government had refused to confirm that they intended to make cuts. After that, they had little choice but to acknowledge that decreasing the education budget was in fact part of the government’s game plan.

Throughout the strike, which included boisterous public demonstrations, confrontations on the picket lines and displays of approval and disapproval from parents, the government and the unions waged costly advertising campaigns to win public support. And by the end of last week, opinions polls indicated that the teachers had prevailed. Toronto-based Environics Research Group, which polled the province almost daily on behalf of the teachers’ unions, found that 63 per cent of Ontario residents felt the government should withdraw all or parts of Bill 160. Only 28 per cent said the government should hold firm. Another polling company, Angus Reid Group, found that within Metro Toronto 55 per cent had supported the government at the start of the strike; by the end, 54 per cent were behind the teachers. “In our polling, the spending cut issue really struck a chord,” said John Wright, a senior vice-president with Angus Reid. “It was not just about cuts, but about trust. It seems to be the issue that changed the landscape.”

The teachers also carried the day when the combatants took their dispute to a court of law. Three days into the strike, the government announced that it would seek an injunction forcing the teachers back to work. Lawyers for both sides spent two days, including a Saturday, arguing their cases before Justice James MacPherson of the Ontario Court’s general division. In his decision, released last Monday morning, MacPherson dismissed the government’s main argument that the strike had caused “irreparable harm.” He added that Bill 160’s provisions are so broad and sweeping that they may be open to a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And he implicitly endorsed the teachers’ position that they were engaged in a lawful protest, not an illegal strike, as the government described it. “The record demonstrates that they made the decision in a careful, concerned and reluctant fashion,” he wrote. ‘Teachers do not believe that they are disregarding the law.”

Union leaders and their members were bolstered by the ruling, declaring that they had won a “moral victory.” But many parents wanted the schools reopened, and looked to

the Ontario Labor Relations Board for a solution. Esther Foorer, the board’s manager of operations, said that by late last week the office switchboards were jammed for an entire day with calls from parents who wanted to appear before the board to argue that the teachers should be ordered back to work. She also issued hundreds of applications for hearings. As well, the Mississauga-based Dufferin-Peel Roman Catholic School Board had a hearing scheduled for Nov. 10, if necessary, to seek an order that would force its teachers to return to work. Moreover, there were growing signs that many teachers had tired of the protest. The ministry of education reported that by the ninth day of the walkout, almost 2,500 teachers had crossed the line, up from 987 on the first day of the strike.

On the picket lines in Orangeville, morale was sagging as the protest wore on. One morning last week, Grade 4 teacher Doris Vance and about 20 colleagues stood on the sidewalk outside Credit Meadows Elementary. Many were cold and shivering, despite their parkas and winter boots. Vance worked on a knitting project to pass the time. “I was ready to go back before it all started,” she said. “Every teacher wants to be in the classroom

with the kids.” Fellow teacher Valerie Till agreed. “Let’s get back to school,” she said. “We’ve made phenomenal gains with the public in the past two weeks, but walking a picket line isn’t gaining anything.”

Public support was evident from the number of motorists who honked as they drove past, and the people who dropped by with coffee and doughnuts. But many local residents did not side with the teachers. One of them, retired electrician Ron Lehman, pulled up in a bright red pickup, rolled down the window and shouted at the crowd of pickets: “I think the government is out to lunch, but so are you guys—the big losers are the kids.” Grade 7 teacher Rix Lubenkov walked over and asked Lehman, politely, if he had read Bill 160. Lubenkov explained that the legislation, which is supposed to be about improving education, makes no reference to curriculum, learning or testing.

But, he told Lehman, taxes and power are each mentioned 124 times while the word fees appears 84 times. “Changes can be made behind closed doors, by the ministers,” Lubenkov says, “without consulting anyone.” Lehman was clearly surprised. “That’s just not right,” he said, and drove off.

As they prepared to return to the classroom, some staff members

at Credit Meadows admitted that they would have a hard time putting the strike behind them—especially since two of their colleagues had crossed the picket line. “People say our fight is with the government, not with our colleagues,” said vice-principal David Kirk. “But it’s frustrating. We were very collegial before all this started. They could have gone to the board offices. They didn’t have to cross the picket line every single day.” Grade 8 teacher Lynda McDougall agreed. “I wanted them out,” she said. ‘We did our damnedest to educate them. We’ll work together—but the strike has changed everything.”

Inside the school, with lunch hour over, Jamie McAlpine, who normally teaches Grade 5, was ready to start the afternoon lessons. “Ladies and gentlemen, we need you listening up,” he shouted at the 24 children playing noisily in the library. Having got the attention of the students, who ranged from grades 1 to 8, he and his colleague, Grade 7 teacher Ann Fenton, handed out multiplication drills for the older children, and addition drills for the younger students. Through the floor-to-ceiling window behind them, their fellow teachers could be seen picketing out on the sidewalk.

McAlpine and Fenton are light-years away from their colleagues on the issue of Bill 160 and the strike. “I think we need to centralize control over education because it has been too fragmented,” said McAlpine. “If Orangeville has one curriculum and another board has its own curriculum, how do we have provincewide tests? Centralization will help when there’s so much mobility in society. It will help a kid from Orangeville who moves to Oakville, or Windsor or North Bay.” Fenton refused to join the protest because she wasn’t given an opportunity to vote on it. ‘The union took away our democratic rights,” she noted. “They said, ‘Everybody is going on strike.’ We felt pressured, yet nobody wanted to hear our side. They lost me right there.”

Both admitted they were generally treated cordially by their picketing colleagues throughout the strike. On one occasion, however, they received an early morning phone call warning them that teachers from other schools would try to prevent them from entering Credit Meadows. And Fenton said her stand led to an unpleasant confrontation with her next-door neighbor, who had provided day care for her two children but who supported the strike. ‘We lost our babysitting over this,” she said. ‘We came to odds over the strike, but they wouldn’t even discuss it.’

For McAlpine, the impact of the protest hit even closer to home. He did not have to cross his wife’s picket line because she teaches Grade 7 at a different school. But, he acknowledged, “for two weeks now, I haven’t felt calm. My wife and I have had some really down-toearth chats. We’ve talked about it with the kids. You end up second-guessing yourself. I don’t know if I’m right, but I believe I am.” Ann McAlpine, meanwhile, said the strike has been a trying experience, but one that strengthened her relationship with her husband: “I respect Jamie’s law-abiding way, but I felt, whether it was legal or illegal, I had to take a stand. If we don’t, we’re just going to get bulldozed by this government.”

PATRICIA CHISHOLM