What we easily forget, in the effort to understand what is happening in Ontario, is that these events are all the result of the revolution. The Common Sense Revolution, remember? And while its innocuous description represents something of an oxymoron, it is surprising to find so many who are now bemused or perplexed by its fulfilment. Further, that a true revolution would come under the auspices of the Progressive Conservative party merely confirms that violent upheavals often appear in reassuring disguise.
The provincial government of Ontario is of Tory lineage but unknown parentage. It has been the first Tory party to promise not reform, but revolution. Reading its manifesto, there is also the promise of miracles—tax cuts, spending cuts, “workfare and learnfare,” guaranteed increased funding for school classrooms, no cuts in health-care spending.
There were many issues in the 1995 provincial election; credibility was obviously not one of them. However, revolutions are not carried out by skeptics or doubters, but by the fervent, fervid and committed, and by those who find in their auguries something to satisfy private anger, personal outrage and incipient paranoia. “Estimates of welfare fraud,” the Tory manifesto airily proclaimed,
“have ranged from a few million to hundreds of millions of dollars.” Such is the hyperbole of the demagogue. A Tory friend, living in Toronto, told me before the election that his party would win, in part because its campaign welfare rhetoric had been an effective cover for a concealed attack on immigrants. He was not proud of it.
Beneath my Ottawa hotel window, as I write, I can look down upon a swarm of schoolteachers demonstrating before the local offices of the government of Ontario. The morning sun makes a fine day for picketing. The strikers seem in good spirits. An onlooker would not think these people—who actually look like teachers—are lawbreakers. Their strike, as the media tirelessly report, is illegal.
However illegal, the strike has been mandated by the teachers who voted overwhelmingly to withdraw their services. It is always the self-righteous who are the most offended by violations of inviolate contractual obligations. Such conduct, they say, by Ontario teachers presents a poor example for Ontario schoolchildren.
A teacher I know hates the strike, can ill afford it, but hates the government more. She thinks the union has done a poor job of representing its side. She feels threatened by the weight of government advertising, with its wilful, cunning misrepresentations. She is convinced one of its purposes is to destroy the union. She senses the public are against the teachers—‘They miss their babysitters”—because they do not understand what is being done by the government to the schools, the teachers and the children.
There is more here, in this heated confrontation over Bill 160, than simply an “illegal” strike. Call it an act of civil disobedience, an intervention larger than a labor dispute and the more elevating for its
broader meaning. Ontario has become a province polarized by deepening divisions—in its politics, between employers and employees, and between the comfortable and the discomfited. There is a growing disconnect and a widening chasm of disbelief, suspicion and rancor. Revolutions are seldom pleasant. Still, it is hard to believe any of this is happening in staid, conservative Ontario.
Can we believe what we see? First, a government of awesomely average men—a former minister of education who boasted he had none—who comprise a cabinet hustled and herded by youthful disciples of Ayn Rand, by devout utilitarians and by followers of Preston Manning. All of these were rank amateurs, but now are determined to improve upon the quality of education in the public school
system by removing upwards of $1 billion from its estimates.
Clearly, this is a government of nostalgia and a revolution in pursuit of a remembered past. So that, in educational reform, there is the vision of the good teacher whose certificate has been hard-earned at North Bay Teachers College, which graduated Premier Mike Harris; then, the extended vision of ranks of orderly classrooms filled with Beaver Cleavers and Andy Hardys and the like progeny of solid middle-class, two-parent, two-car families.
But take another look: see what the teachers see, which has driven | them to the picket lines. They see d Ontario becoming a dysfunctional I province; Ontario, of all places.
In today’s schools, Beaver Cleaver is but one of many minorities. There are physically impaired children and children with learning disabilities. There are dysfunctional children from dysfunctional homes, immigrant children from dysfunctional societies in dysfunctional countries. Abused children, undernourished children, and disturbed, violent children. There has never been so much pressure placed upon the teacher, so much direct, awful responsibility and so much governmental indifference and hostility.
The Harris government has its solution: take a billion dollars out of the education budget, hire more people for less who are not teachers, micromanage the system from Queen’s Park, let school budgets determine classroom size, legislate the teachers to their knees.
Should we laugh or cry?
The sick, facing longer waiting lines, are less a problem. They heal themselves, or wait out their delays, or die. In the incubation of poverty, squalor and neglect and human misery unerringly breed more of the same. The cycle is certain, the cost unconscionable and eternal. Ontario is rapidly developing a poverty culture; the formula is written in Bill 160. But it may also contain the writing on the wall for this peculiar renegade government that calls itself progressive conservative. All the signs are there.
A bitter strike reveals rifts in staid Ontario
Dalton Camp is an author, political columnist and frequent commentator on radio and television.
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