Last weekend, as March break began, OSSTF passed the Charter for Public Education below at it's AMPA annual general meeting:
Basically, OSSTF [the Ontario Secondary School Teacher Federation] is calling for the creation of two, new, publicly funded secular school systems to be created in the province of Ontario. That would be accomplished by merging the four existing publicly funded Catholic and Public school systems together into two new streamlined ones, one being French, the other English. Both would be then be non denominational. Ontario would no longer publicly fund it's provincial Catholic school system. The goals, as stated are for better funding, and governance as well as for more "diversity, equity and fairness".
Many of us might not be aware of this development during the March school break. However, it has been long in coming and will without doubt be the topic of much staff room discussion in the weeks, months and perhaps years ahead, once classes resume.
Education Minister Liz Sandals, speaking at the OECTA [Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association] AGM last weekend, has all ready confirmed the Wynne Liberal government's ongoing, continued support for the Catholic school system @.
The Catholic teachers can take some comfort in that they are safe for now. The Wynne government holds a clear majority of seats at Queen's Park. It's still early in their term. The Liberals can pretty much say and do what they please, for now. However, they are very unpopular, scandal proned and economically on the rocks. In addition, recent polling suggests that Catholic school funding does not enjoy widespread popular support. Indeed, a recent Forum Poll shows that 52% of Ontarians are opposed to public Catholic school funding. Furthermore, there is strong cross party support for it's elimination with the party by party breakdown currently at OLP=49%, PC=51%, NDP=53% @ Sun
Public and Catholic school supporters will continue to argue endlessly over whether big is better or whether eliminating public funding for the Catholic school system will result in improved service, governance and financial savings. The verdict is still out. Municipal improvements since amalgamation, beginning in the Harris years, and continuing through successive Liberal governments, has clearly been a path fraught with peril. As good as it might sound in theory, the savings and benefits have not materialized. One can even strongly argue that community input, involvement and our highly diverse, interests and needs have suffered at the local level.
The debate will surely heat up now, with no clear answers in sight. Although the OSSTF Charter raises many interesting points and worthy goals, objectively speaking one must still wonder; Will a merger of our school systems fare any better?
Of course, Ontario's Catholic school system also enjoys a Constitutional right to public funding. Like any other group, Catholic school supporters will naturally be very hesitant to willingly surrender their hard fought gains. How far these rights actually go though is a political decision, one that over the years has been extended further into and through the secondary school level.
Furthermore, in the legal struggle between denominational verses human rights, staunch, traditional, Catholic school supporters might well find themselves on the wrong side of history in the developed world. In Ontario, we continue to proceed at a break neck speed as a highly diverse and secular society into the new millennium. Times change. Like it or not, there isn't any realistic prospect of rolling back the hands of the clock in Ontario to days' past.
Look around! Our very diverse province of Ontario is irrevocably changing to become much more inclusive and accepting of others. As far as hiring and employment practices, or for that matter publicly funded religious instruction goes, the traditional Catholic church, as opposed to it's more progressive, social justice wing, continues to insist upon inflexible positions that increasingly put it at odds with our much cherished Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
True, Catholic denominational rights have provided an opting out clause from embracing the increasingly progressive social changes that are sweeping us today, on religious grounds. How long that will continue to hold much public succour is questionable however. Across Canada the auspices have not been good. We all know about the horrible abuse at the residential schools. Also, there's a growing "spotlight", as highlighted at this year's Oscar awards, on the percentile of long unchecked and institutionalized paedophiliac activity at the parish level, now illuminating the Catholic church's once seemingly immune moral frock. Long term, the prospects of maintaining the past status quo, do not seem to be shining in the favour of publicly funded Catholic denominational rights anymore.
True, Catholicism has been blessed with the arrival of Pope Francis. He often might be like a breath of fresh air from on high to the churches progressive wing. Regretfully, at this point one must objectively wonder if his papacy hasn't become a question of too little too late despite his excellent efforts and intentions to drag some of the churches more controversial practices screaming and fighting into our modern times. The elasticity required in a highly developed and diverse place like the Ontario we live in today is not slow and unbending. These are quite different times from when the Catholic school denominational rights were originally founded in the 1867 BNA Act.
Like it or not, from a human rights perspective these denominational rights simply would not fly if they were being negotiated today. We increasingly see that with the troubling controversy over GSA's and the LGBTQ. Also, over the lack of rights for non Catholics within the publicly funded Catholic school system. It will increasingly become unpopular to publicly fund what today are legally considered very discriminatory practices, especially in these economically challenging times.
It's unfortunate that the Catholic church is being centred out among religions for past sins and it's sense of entitlement and special privileges. But in Ontario, the Catholic schools are alone in being publicly funded. Voters have already rejected extending public school funding to other faiths. What will happen if Catholic school funding where to become an issue in our next provincial election?
ICE has been organizing the Catholic community in case of just such an eventuality for many years. OECTA has been actively involved with the initiative, as have the Catholic parishes, school board officials and trustees. Likewise, the OSSTF Charter of Public Education has not just suddenly appeared out of thin air.
Recent indicators of both sides political activity include the Hamilton Catholic board. It has been encouraging the faithful to participate in a newspaper letter writing campaign in support of the schools . Even the Toronto Star recently admitted, in a byline below a story, that it was being republished to re-emphasize that a cut to Catholic school funding was one of the top, public, budget requests . These signs are only the most recent and obvious. Interests on both sides of the Catholic school funding issue have long been organizing and lobbying public sentiment and the political powers that be, for the fight ahead. Take sides as you will, but we can't really fault either for trying. That's how our political system works. It's what politicos do. And make no mistake, ICE's various activities, like the OSSTF Charter of Public Education are both very political indeed.
Certainly, Education Minister Sandals public declaration of support for Catholic education at the OECTA AGM, coming right on the heels of OSSTF's Charter of Public Education was pure politics in action too! Would it be a stretch of the imagination to guess that it was a much appreciated gift for breaking union solidarity with CUPE, ETFO and OSSTF via the surprise 2012 OECTA MOU? Or in tacit recognition of OECTA's relatively, very feeble attempt at strike action during the last round of CB?
Where there is smoke, we look for fire. In OECTA's case there isn't any smoking gun. Still, don't doubt that Ms. Sandals is a political animal. This week provided Liz with an excellent opportunity to further stick her knife deep into the very heart of teacher union solidarity. Are you surprised that she's only too happy to help somebody out who has often seemed so inclined to play let's make a deal! Then afterwards even poses for a photo op with the OECTA beginning teachers! In this, her political instincts might be considered pretty good. She was all ready person no gratis at the OSSTF AMPA. With a throw of the dice, Liberal chances of winning over the Catholic vote come next election could suddenly increased exponentially, while others are overwhelmingly saying no thanks to her sorry ass party!
Of course, the Liberals aren't doing well in the polls! Then again, neither is support for publicly funded Catholic education! A cynic might claim that misery loves company -a realist that maybe they will both go down together? Let's suppose the opposition PC's decide to run on a secular system platform similar to OSSTF's Charter for Public Education? Is it inconceivable then that OECTA was also trying to hedge it's own bets in courting PC Party Leader Pat Brown at the AGM?
Well, let's be clear. OECTA has long had a policy of engagement with all three of Ontario's main political parties, the OLP, the PC's and the NDP. It's sometimes worked out quite well to the teachers' advantage, other times not. It is not necessarily nefarious or a bad thing to do in and of itself. However it is risky. To wit:
In 2003, PC Education Minister Liz Witmar tried to use the OECTA AGM to put a "happy face" on Ernie Eve's failed makeover of the Mike Harris PC's. Had all gone well, might a showy teacher love fest have helped smooth over their desperate election bid after years of labour strife and unrest?
Perhaps MOE Witmar thought the PC's had it in the bag? Wrong! OECTA dissent was still tolerated, if only just barely. Liz unceremoniously got the bum's rush from disgruntled teachers when she was boooed out of the hall! Then inadvertently was caught up in the mad crush of a very confusing media and PC klown show as they pushed and shoved the teacher membership, caught on the news cameras outside the AGM door!
Fast forward to 2016. Another Liz, this time MOE Sandals, now also accepts the invite. In contrast, is it safe to say, she too tried to play OECTA like a fiddle, quite successfully this time? For the now otherwise quite nasty Liberal parties political gain?
On a more constructive note, OECTA's engagement with the McGuinty Liberals helped produce good results for all of the province's teachers, before, during and after the Great Tory Defeat in the do or die election of 2003. A decent two way working relationship was successfully established with the new Liberal government for awhile at least. The results were far from perfect. But teachers were no longer stuck standing outside of Queens Park with our protest signs forlornly looking in.
It did not last. Such is the nature of the political beast. However, I firmly believe that a good base line for what's possible when the Ontario government and it's teacher's can actually work together for the common good, for a brief period anyways, was achieved.
During the McGuinty years, many OECTA teachers, like their public counterparts but perhaps to a greater degree, voluntarily liasoned with the Liberals. Others with the NDP. We were embedded in the parties as teacher representatives. Being "embedded" with a political party was quite different than being "in bed" with them however. My own understanding was that we were always teachers first. We were only party members but for a definite teacher union member purpose.
So there I was, a novice at joining a political party. Quite frankly, I wouldn't ever want to join a political party again. At the time it was good, important work, from a grass root member perspective. But after the MOU betrayal, I soon quit helping out the Liberals, and for that matter retired as an OECTA teacher and local unit executive officer too.
Quite frankly, I am not going to work to aid and abet any party that is going after our teacher unions. Nor for that matter a union when it engages in concession bargaining. In neither case are we working for the good interests of the teacher membership. Maybe for the self serving politicos or an out of touch union elite, but for our grass root members? Others might see it differently and do so in good faith, still with a greater common purpose in mind. I'm not sure how that is still possible. Indeed many seemingly quite good teacher activists from my generation have long since seemed to just hang on, roll over and play dead. Me? No can do.
Fortunately, I had a choice as I had reached retirement age. We had a good run at it back in the day. I think it should be mandatory to get up out of the sandbox so a younger generation of teacher activists can arise to the formidable tasks at hand. Re-establish an effective baseline again some day. For my part, I'm quite happy that I can still write and otherwise be politically involved at the grass root level where and when it interests me, without having to dance to somebody else's bad tune. I have few regrets.
Next year our teacher affiliates will be negotiating new contracts with the Liberal government again. If more division ensues, OECTA and OSSTF can point fingers over whom crossed the line first over the contentious issue of Catholic school funding. Or in signing off on an MOU. Unfortunately, the bottom line might well be that the Liberals are even better positioned than ever to pursue an effective divide and conquer strategy as our teacher affiliates fight among themselves over Catholic school funding and cut throat Liberal deals!
Anway, I won't dwell in my senior moments any further except to say that my life is pretty much just one big, long, break nowadays. Many of you however will be returning to school where there will be much talk about OSSTF's Charter of Public Education. If the last few years are any indication of what lies ahead, look for most of your teacher affiliates to once again invoke the "cone of silence". At least one has even been known to warn members not to discuss the a lot of union topics with others on the social media, unless it is in a tightly supervised, and controlled forum. I'd be willing to bet that most of you will be expected to supposedly be loyal to your union by just touting the party line.
Regretfully, that does not facilitate the level of professional complexity and integrity of argument and debate that we as teachers are capable of exercising as we talk among ourselves within our broader teacher union movement. Nor is it what's is really needed to meaningfully flesh out the many issues at stake in a constructive and in depth way. If we truly believe in better building our union movement, we need to be able to critically think for ourselves and talk openly with each other about our different positions on the issue at hand, not just ape the official party line.
Indeed, an informed union member who truly cares will want to find ways to improve all of our situations for the common good. By blindly following the ... ahem ... leadership, we might just do each other in for the Liberals, or for that matter Pat Brown's PC party.
As always, your Teacher Free Speech Comments can be posted anonymously below if you'd like to avail yourself of this option but feel at risk. Otherwise, please -we are the teachers of Ontario. Whatever your union position on the OSSTF Charter For Education, ask questions, think about it and urge your "powers that be" to exercise constraint so they don't shoot themselves, or you, in the foot. The battle lines between us are now clearly being drawn. The government has the upper hand. The risks of getting fatally hurt are just too high to unquestionably risk any further folly.
On Teacher Free Speech and Grass Root Renewal @ My Blogsite!