In March 2019, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario announced its plans for significant changes to Ontario’s education system. These changes, which consist of significant budget cuts, including those to special education for students with special needs, larger class sizes, and mandatory e-learning for high school students, have had negative impacts on the quality of education in Ontario. Since then, there has been an uproar from Ontario students and educators. These cuts have sparked responses ranging from the student walk-out on 4 April 2019 to the job action of school support staff from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in November 2019. The everyday lives of students and staff have been disrupted by strike action, and negotiations between the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and the Conservative government are showing few signs of coming to an end anytime soon. 

The contracts of 60 000 members in the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) expired in August 2019. Since then, members of the union have been fighting to reverse numerous changes that the Conservative government plans to introduce. These include an increase in average class size from twenty-two students back to twenty-five students, a mandatory two-course e-learning program planned to be effective by September 2020, canceling a two-percent pay increase to compensate for inflation, and cuts to special education. 

After months of negotiations with the Conservative government, the OSSTF declared a work-to-rule campaign on 26 November 2019. This meant that they would not be taking part in any supplementary duties such as providing comments on report cards, overseeing standardized tests such as EQAO, and attending unpaid staff meetings outside of school hours. Negotiations have continued, but little progress has been made in reaching an agreement. To further pressurize the government, the OSSTF declared a province-wide strike on 4 December 2019. This full withdrawal of services was the first in over two decades, the last being in 1997. Negotiations continued but were once again fruitless. Rotating strikes have been held throughout December and January, with the first on 11 December, affecting the TDSB and eight other school boards. 

Although teachers are the ones spending strike days on the picket lines, work-to-rule has also affected the lives of students. The TDSB canceled all late starts and early dismissals, as these time periods were previously used for staff meetings. At MGCI, early Friday dismissals have been temporarily halted, with school lasting until 3:15 pm like any other day rather than 1:45 pm. This has been a problem for many Muslim students who attend Friday prayers at the mosque. With daylight savings, prayer times start earlier, and students would have had no choice but to leave school in order to attend. However, MGCI’S Muslim Student Association (MSA) got permission to use the MGCI library at lunch to run Friday prayers at the school. Many students have volunteered to help with setup and takedown, which involves removing chairs and tables from the main library space and the East York room and setting down prayer mats borrowed from the local mosque. Turnout has been very high, with staff as well as students attending. 

Student Activity Council (SAC) President Nelson Lee, who has been actively involved in advocating for prayer spaces in the school, stated, “We’re very grateful that MSA and other groups and individuals have made these prayer spaces possible.”

However, prayers have become a bit of a disruption for the MSA because it interferes with their meetings. Originally the meetings for the club were routinely held on Friday at lunch which was convenient for all members attending since it didn’t interfere with prayers, but now must be held on other days. 

Members of MSA are not the only ones having trouble due to the strike. Initiatives run by SAC have also been negatively affected. The annual Christmas Show, which usually takes place on the last day before Winter Break from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm, was canceled this year on account of teachers not being able to supervise any activities unrelated to teaching during school hours. Going forward, events such as dances and pep rallies may be more difficult to organize and require longer discussions about what can and can’t be done due to strike rules. The job action also caused MGCI Arts Night, which usually takes place in December, to be postponed until 16 January 2020. The traditional MGCI teacher band performance also did not take place, which was a disappointment for many. 

While strike action has caused disruptions for both staff and students, it has also caused unity among the student body in order to work around the issues. MSA President Zuha Qureshi says, “Personally, I’m really happy to see so many students come together for prayers- it’s especially significant that students worked together to make this possible because it highlights how important this is to our student body.”

In addition, the OSSTF believes that taking action against the changes introduced by the Conservative government is necessary in order to prevent long-term negative effects on Ontario students. OSSTF President Harvey Bischof stated, “I can tell you that the long-term damage to the system, if we allow the government to go down this destructive path, is far worse than a day lost to labour action” (CBC News).

As of now, negotiations have not made much progress and until a deal is reached, staff and students will continue to work around the disruptions caused by job action in hopes of a better future for Ontario students.

 

Works Cited

[1] Katsarov, C. (2019, December 3). Province says new offer made to teachers’ union as deadline for 1-day strike looms | CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ont-teacher-talks-osstf-1.5382381