On November 2, Toronto-based nonprofit People for Education held its 17th Annual ‘Making Connections’ conference at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management. Parents, educators, students, and policymakers attended a variety of speeches, Q&A panels, and discussion sessions highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of education in Ontario.
The past and future of public education in Ontario ran thick in a morning session entitled “Labour Peace: What’s at Stake?” Tensions were high in the room before the talk began, as the attendees and speakers worried the lingering wounds inflicted by the 2012 bargaining crisis between educators and the McGuinty government would surface. The panel members came from a variety of different, pivotal vantage points: Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario; Tony Dean, Professor at the School of Public Policy and Governance; Faye Dremmen, Ontario Principals’ Council; and Ken Thurston, Director of Education at the York Region District School Board.
The focus of the discussion was the future of teacher union bargaining, embodied in the education legislation known as The School Boards Collective Bargaining Act currently being discussed at Queen’s Park. As this new policy is finalized educators and government officials have taken the opportunity to reflect on the last round of failed talks that saw media-oriented smear campaigns firing from both sides. Each panelist clearly pointed out the shortcomings of the McGuinty government’s handling of the negotiations, while remaining humble about their own mistakes. The panelists all acknowledged that due to the lack of bargaining ground rules, the negotiations took an unfortunate turn. The media became a tool used by each side to not only convey their own perspectives, but also tear down the objectives of their opponents in an extremely public forum.
Sam Hammond recalled feeling as though he was backed into a corner by government ads, as his reputation was put at risk. Consequently, he felt compelled to respond in order to prevent public opinion from souring. A sense of frustration was expressed, as each panelist in turn recounted how they felt as though their perspective had been completely ignored at the bargaining table. In truth, their frustration was not unwarranted. The Ontario Principals’ Council was not consulted during the talks, and Ontario School Trustee Councils were not brought in to participate in any meaningful way. Audience members were quick to call out the lack of Parent Involvement Councils and municipal activists at the table during the last round of bargains. However, they remained surprisingly optimistic about the potential for more holistic negotiations as the next round of contracts expire. The future of these more structured negotiations does not just depend on the rigidity of future legislation; it is also determined by the willingness of participants to respect the interests of all parties involved. Thankfully, Tony Dean made clear that the incoming legislation would seek to make the bargaining process fair and inclusive by incorporating these previously disregarded local insights.
As the panel discussion came to a close the speakers attempted to reign in the heated audience by reminding everyone about what is most important: the actual product of youth education. Not only do fractured negotiations diminish public confidence in the education system in Ontario, but they impact students directly. Last year as the negotiations fell apart, students throughout Ontario were left in the dust as cherished extra-curricular activities were cancelled to send McGuinty a strong message. Preserving the rights of teachers is important, but negotiating these rights in the future cannot occur in lieu of a consistent learning environment for students. As Ken Thompson put it: regardless of what the collective agreement is in the short term, teachers will remain the people that Canadian families trust to nurture their children in the long term. The session concluded with a collective sigh of relief coming from both the speakers and the audience members. It felt as if many were finally able to be publicly heard, and a new sense of resolve along with the incoming legislation will do much to ensure future negotiations run smoothly and peacefully. What this panel made clear is that teachers unions and school boards are ready for a change. What remains to be seen is if the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act is a sign of a peaceful future, or another red flag.
Deanna Veltri is a 2015 Masters of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto. She holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Canadian Studies from McGill University. Her policy interests include gender policy and health policy.