City & Politics

Canaries in the coal mine: Why Ontario’s school crisis matters in Alberta

If we’re lucky, the kids in Ontario don’t feel the change. They still trudge through the doors of their schools every morning, dragging their feet and backpacks along the shiny floors, muddying the tiles as the sun rises behind the windows. The older kids, the ones in high school, are probably more aware. They may have even discussed it openly in class with their teachers. But the younger ones, the tiny ones in the elementary classes, hopefully they have managed to retain their magnificent ignorance and are ambling through their lives as though nothing has happened; going through their schooldays as though their teachers want to be there.

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They don’t.

Albertans, please pay attention to a little exposition. I’ll try to keep it brief. On January 3rd Laurel Broten, Ontario’s Education Minister, announced that the teachers of that province would be forced to accept a new contract that would freeze their pay despite mounting costs of living, reduce their sick days and reduce the number of holdover sick days they could receive payment for upon retirement. All of this is allowed by Ontario’s controversial and draconian Bill 115, a bill that allows the provincial government to unilaterally impose contracts upon its teachers and curtails their right to protest. No more strikes. No debates. No compromises. Using Laurel Broten as its agent the province forced all of its teachers to their knees and demanded total their supplication for fear of police action. When 1985 or THX 1138 or whatever-dystopian-reference-that-connects with you became more real than fake it did so in a bland conference room, behind a bland podium, using a bland name like, “Bill 115.”

Ontario’s Minister of Education, Laurel Broten

But why should you care? Your kids go to school in Alberta. This doesn’t affect you. This has no bearing on your life. Beyond the obvious dictatorial undertones, you should care because Ontario has become a crystal ball and what’s happening there may well come to pass here in a way that could effect many of us.

Our Premier  Alison Redford, came up the middle during a tight race for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. As you may recall, she wasn’t the front-runner. That position belonged to Gary Mar. But Redford did win and the horse that got her across that finish line had “EDUCATION” painted in big bold letters across its flanks. It was a wonderful mini-Nenshi moment, seeing an Albertan inspire her team with hope for a better future, a future built around people and progress rather than bitumen. She continued riding that horse in the provincial election when she handily beat Alberta’s personal Emperor Palpatine, Danielle Smith and her hyper-conservative, backwards thinking Wildrose Alliance. Redford made some bold promises during that campaign. She promised that Alberta would make education a major priority. She promised that Alberta would invest in education. She promised to restore funding that had been cut in the 2011 provincial budget, eliminate the highly controversial and unpopular Provincial Achievement Tests for the younger grades (3 and 6) and to establish predictable 3 year funding cycles so that school boards could create better plans and achievable long-term goals. She promised to put money into Alberta’s education system and make it a major interest for her government.

Well, these days Alison Redford might be using copious amounts of both glue and toothpaste because she has killed that horse. Took it out back and got messy with a shovel. She turned her back and walked away from the priorities that played a major role in getting her elected not once, but twice.

Alberta’s Premier, Alison Redford.

And, hey, I’m sorry about overusing that horse metaphor. Talk about beating a horse to death, right? But I digress…

Alberta’s teachers are working in good faith, without a contract. In November, the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) put forward a labour-deal that would simultaneously acknowledge the province’s money issues as well as the needs of its teachers. This deal actually proposed a temporary wage freeze on all teachers, including the low annual “salary grid increases” that classroom teachers see for the first 10-or-so years of their careers and are the only wage increases they will ever receive regardless of job performance, in exchange for defined caps to be put on the number of assignable hours teachers can be required to work.

Considering how the average teacher in Alberta works over 55 hours a week and that 40 percent of new teachers are considering or actively perusing career changes due to burn out caused by overwork and a lack of support -according to a February 2011 report by the ATA titled The Early Years of Practice: Interim Report on a 5 Year Study of Teachers in Alberta actual attrition rates are nearly impossible to compile- the suggestion of limiting the assignable time for educators in exchange for a wage freeze seems eminently reasonable. Alison Redford and her Progressive Conservatives didn’t think so. They rejected the proposal and walked away from the bargaining table.

The ATA has now walked away from collective bargaining leaving the province’s department of education to individually negotiate with over 60 school boards. But how does this connect with the recent events in Ontario? Alberta doesn’t have anything like Bill 115. That’s true but Alberta does have many tired and angry educators and several confrontational school boards raring to fight. As we saw in Ontario, it doesn’t start with a full-on strike. It starts with rolling strikes that make their away across a school board, expanding outward. Discontentment ripples out in its way and strikes are inherently antagonistic, most likely leading towards a furthering of the belittling and trivializing of the very human needs of our province’s working teachers by the province. That leads to more confrontational behaviour such as teachers “working to rule” and refusing to volunteer their time towards extra-curricular activities, that leads to the province insinuating that teachers are lazy because they get paid to volunteer (?) and run those programs, that leads to more strikes and the dominos continue to fall, crushing everyone. Parents are wildly inconvenienced as the schools close, teachers lose enormous amounts of money and spending power as they strike, merchants and the retail sector lose customers as one of the largest professional groups in the province tightens its belt, the government gets a black eye as it puts money ahead of education and shows itself a liar. But most importantly, the school experience for the students is lessened as the classroom leaders spend their limited energy fighting the system rather than caring for and providing opportunities for them.


Ontario’s teachers are threatening “days of action” that are essentially strikes and “work to rule” behaviour that will kill extra-curricular programs. Parents are worried. The government is blustering and threatening to charge teachers thousands of dollars as a consequence for their protests. Teachers are angry and spending less time on their work. But the people who worry me the most are –cliché as it is- the kids who need their teachers to care enough to provide for them. The kids who live for band or drama or football and may just lose the one outlet that made the mundane horrors of their daily lives okay; the people who rely on the adults to behave like adults and put their houses in order.

So much of what I’ve just written and you’ve just read is conjecture, Lord knows that I hope I’m wrong, but right now our province is at a juncture. Our government and our educators have to look at their priorities and make some hard choices. Is an incredibly low and flat income-tax rate more important to us than meeting the needs of our students and middle-class? Is the duration of a wage freeze more important than the mission that the teachers agreed to when they first singed-on to a position? What really matters to us and how can we put those common priorities at the front of the line in order to avoid the realities that are coming to pass in the east?

Alison Redford told us that she cared about education. I think it’s time for her to prove it.

Theodore Wiebe is a writer living in Calgary. You can follow more of his important nonsense on Twitter: @TheodoreWiebe 

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