As far as Eileen Lennon is concerned, hell is a place where everyone has a cell phone and the ringing never stops. Over the past two weeks, the president of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation has dashed from picket lines to meetings and news conferences, all the while dogged by insistent calls. Sitting back in her modest office in one of Toronto’s more decrepit office buildings, it is clear that her observation is meant more as comic relief than serious complaint. Lennon, who has led almost all
of the province’s 126,000 teachers in their strike against the provincial government's education bill, has a raft of more serious problems to deal with. The walkout, which the federation calls a political protest, has disrupted the lives of millions, from those in Premier Mike Harris’s suite at Queen’s Park to parents in remote communities scrambling to find alternative care for their children. But Lennon says she has no regrets. “I have spent more than a little time thinking about the responsibility,” she says, “but I don’t have any second thoughts. This has woken people up to the value of a good public education system—even those who voted for the Tories.” Lennon’s commitment to that system goes back a long way. Her mother and four aunts were teachers, and Lennon, 48, was raised on tales of poor working conditions and meagre salaries in the days before most teachers were union members. “They put up with it because they needed the job—they were not well off,” she recalls, adding that most of them worked full time while raising
“bunches of kids.” The stories left her with a “healthy skepticism of authority,” and almost as soon as she became a teacher in 1972 she became active in the union. In 1988, she was elected head of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, a post she held for two years. As tradition dictates, she did not run again and instead returned to the classroom. Then, in 1993, she began working in her local union office full time, and when it was her association’s turn to fill the federation president’s post—-the position rotates annually among the umbrella organization’s five member unions—Lennon was chosen.
That was last August—just in time for her to take on the government over Bill 160. Almost overnight, Lennon’s life was thrown into fast forward and by mid-October she had become a widely recognized personality. “It’s a very strange feeling for somebody who has never been anything other than a private citizen, and never wanted to be anyM thing else,” says Lennon, who I lives with her twin sister in
0 Mississauga, just west of
1 Toronto. Her life has been virai tually on hold—she has been I home only two nights in the
past three weeks. “My friends have given up having anything other than a telephone conversation with me,” she says. On the other hand, she adds, “you certainly know you’re alive."
She has also learned things she never wanted to know. Lennon has been disillusioned by the government’s refusal to negotiate any major changes to the bill, and angered by what she views as retaliation: in an unexpected manoeuvre a few days after the walkout began, the government amended the bill to remove vice-principals and principals from the union. That change was made to punish the union, Lennon says, and it will seriously erode the collegiality of school staff. But as she mulls over the likely wins and losses for teachers, students and their parents, Lennon does seem heartened by one thing. “This has been a huge morale boost for teachers,” she says. “They have felt under siege for some time—undervalued and unappreciated. This has given them recognition for their role in society. I feel very good about that.”
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