ETFO was born into one of the most tumultuous periods in Ontario education history. In October 1997, 126,000 teachers staged a two-week walkout to protest the assault on teachers and public education by the Conservative government of Mike Harris. ETFO’s first annual meeting took place a few months later. Delegates to that 1998 founding meeting voted unanimously to work to defeat the Conservative government in the next provincial election. From its beginnings, political action has played a vital role in ETFO’s growth into an influential and powerful entity.
Ontario teachers have a long, proud history of working for social and political change. The formation of ETFO was preceded by nine decades of activism that, among other gains, resulted in standard contracts for teachers, statutory union membership, professional recognition, the right to strike, pay equity for women teachers, and equal partnership in managing our pension. The intensity of the Harris government initiatives, however, meant that teachers and other education workers had to commit unprecedented attention and resources to political action during ETFO’s first decade.
Years of Turmoil
At the time the federation was founded, ETFO members were experiencing the dizzying throes of the Tories’ so-called Common Sense Revolution: school board amalgamations, funding cuts, strips to bargaining rights, creation of the new regulatory body, the Ontario College of Teachers, province-wide student testing, and a new elementary curriculum and standard report card imposed without consultation, resources, or training for teachers. Bill 160, the Education Accountability Act, which prompted the massive teacher walkout in the fall of 1997, removed principals and vice-principals from the teacher federations, cancelled five of the nine professional activity days, and prevented teachers from negotiating class sizes. These policies were aimed directly at undermining public confidence in our school system and weakening the influence of teachers and their unions. John Snobelen, the first education minister during the Harris regime, called the public system “mediocre” and summarized his agenda by his infamous comment that the government needed to “invent a crisis” in order to open the way to reforming the system.
There was no evidence that any of the Tories’ policies would improve the quality of education. Although the Ontario College of Teachers and standardized testing were introduced in the dying days of the one-term NDP government, the Tories quickly made these two initiatives their own. They used these measures to attack teachers, arguing that teachers needed to be more productive and more accountable, much as right-wing Republicans were doing south of the border.
The end of the Tories’ first term in office did not mean an end to their education “reforms.” Shortly after they were re-elected in June 1999, they moved to mandate teacher recertification, legislate extracurricular activities, and fund private schools through a tuition tax credit.