As the public's attention was directed at 5,000 teachers gathered on the grass in front of Queen's Park on Tuesday, it neglected the buzz of activity going on only a few hundred yards away.
While the province's educators protested a bill that would freeze their wages and deny them the right to strike, Ontario's MPPs were returning from summer recess and preparing to duke it out over Premier Dalton McGuinty's Putting Students First Act.
Conservatives set to help McGuinty's Liberals
The bill has been treated in recent days as a done deal, but it still has to be passed in the legislature. And while Tim Hudak's Conservatives are eager to support the Bill, the NDP line is staunchly against it.
According the New Democrats' Education Critic, Peter Tabuns, the party will oppose this bill just as they have opposed most previous anti-strike and essential service legislation. Fighting the bill isn't simply a matter of party principal, though. It's common sense. "There was no big strike in the offing," said Tabuns. "So we see no point in the bill."
Tabuns, who represents the Toronto-Danforth riding, said the Liberals should let the teachers negotiate with individual school boards, instead of legislating them to work.
To the Liberals, however, the looming expiry date of the teachers' contracts made achieving a 'cost-effective' resolution to negotiations extremely important. "We have been working with many of our partners for almost six months to establish a new sustainable education funding framework," said Grahame Rivers, a representative of the office of Education Minister Laurel Broten. The end product of their work was the Putting Students First Act.
Putting students first?
In an August 27 press release introducing the Act, Broten asserted that the bill is "necessary legislation" to secure financial sustainability, peace and stability in schools.
That peace and stability entails a two-year ban of labour disputes. It also hands teachers a 1.5 per cent across-the-board pay cut, the cancellation of anticipated 5.5 per cent pay increases, and abolishment of the sick day accumulation and retirement cashout policy. The upshot is that thousands of older teachers would see their retirement planning go up in smoke.
But, according to Rivers, Putting Student First would actually benefit younger teachers. "The legislation will help newer teachers through … fair hiring provisions and allowing newer teachers to continue to be recognized for their experience and additional qualifications," he said.
Age and experience aren't the only divisions that have been emphasized in the push to pass this legislation. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontarien (AEFO) signed an agreement closely resembling the Putting Students First Act in July.
Bill may pass, but will remain a point of contention
The government is presenting that agreement as the road map to reaching its overall fiscal targets for education. But not all members of the two signatory teacher associations are on board. At the Queen's Park rally, Catholic teachers could be seen in the crowd carrying signs denouncing OECTA's deal and the legislation it would seem to have given rise to.
With the start of the school year only days away and two of Ontario's three major parties poised to support Put Students First, the bill seems bound to pass. But the government's infringement on teachers' right to strike will continue to be a point of great contention.
Though it's an uphill battle, Tabuns's party is standing pat against the legislation. "We expect that [the bill] will be passed by a majority,” he said. “[But] we will vote against it."
Peter Goffin is a writer and recent political science graduate living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Toronto Star, OpenFile, and This magazine.