SCHOOL YEAR UNCERTAIN

By Kirk Winter

One of the surest signs of the end of summer is the arrival of the first sales flyer using the tagline “Back to School.” They are currently out in circulation for various retail enterprises as back-to-school shopping is now the second biggest retail season in Canada after Christmas. The only real question for many parents in Ontario is what their school-aged children’s back-to-school experience will be like.

With only a month left until Ontario schools reopen, precious little progress has been made by the Minister of Education in ensuring Ontario’s teachers have new collective agreements. All four teachers federations, public and separate, English and French, are without contracts as of August 31.

At the high school level, the Ministry and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation will not even have an agreement on what will be bargained locally and what will be bargained provincially until the end of August. An entire summer has been wasted with little meaningful negotiations occurring.

The last provincial cabinet shuffle installed Ford loyalists in Education and Labour, the two most important ministries, if one is concerned about what is to be negotiated and what will happen when negotiations break down as both sides gird their loins for a showdown. Conservative insiders claimed that former Labour Minister Laurie Scott was deemed to be too “teacher friendly” by the Premier, and possibly an opponent of the sweeping back-to-work legislation which the Ford government seems very fond of, and has already used with the Power Workers Union.

For all four teachers federations the issues on the table for this round of bargaining are deemed to be sacrosanct: class sizes, overall teacher employment, compensation and adequate support staff to see schools function properly. These issues and an intransigent provincial government looking to cut costs in education by more than a billion dollars almost guarantee a labour conflagration like Ontario has not seen since the dark days of the Common Sense Revolution and Premier Mike Harris.

Educational sources have told me that schools will more than likely open in September, but that it may not be business as usual with extra-curricular activities, perhaps the first bargaining chip to be played by the teacher federations. Work-to-rule and rotating provincial walkout outs are expected sometime between Hallowe'en and Christmas. The educational sector is working in close coordination with organized labour across Ontario and the one day shutdown of cities, the so-called Days of Action that so antagonized the Harris Tories, will also likely be on the menu for Ontario as 2019 becomes 2020.

All of this is occurring against the background of the provincial government who have taken a 142-day summer break that does not bring them back to Queen's Park until the end of October. This allows Ontario Conservatives to assist their fellow Tories in Ottawa fight a federal election in September and October.

Ontario’s parents and students are on the verge of experiencing at least one or more school years disrupted by rancour between teachers and the Ministry of Education. Only time will tell how bad it is, and how much long-term damage is done.