Feature

Debi Wells: Teacher, Union Leader, Social Activist

Catherine Allen

Ontario Elementary Teachers are a diverse group of individuals with many strengths and talents. In a collective sense, we tend to be problem solvers, ready to tackle the many challenges that confront us in our professional lives. At the same time, we strive to achieve balance in our personal lives both at home and within the community. Multitasking is virtually second nature to the average elementary teacher and something at which we excel.

Debi Wells, vice-president of the Limestone Teacher Local fits this paradigm in all respects. Teacher, union leader, political/social activist, wife and mother, Wells is a person who wears a variety of hats, often simultaneously. “There are many different ways one can live,” she says. “You can live thinking nothing can be changed and what is, is good enough. Or you can think it could be better and if I give it a good go, it can be better.”

Born in Hamilton, Bermuda, Wells grew up in Montreal, Sarnia, and Kingston. Her passion for political issues was forged in the era of the Chicago Riots and the Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She recalls lively debates around the dinner table with her dad, a life-long Conservative from Cape Breton. “I never won because my dad was quite a fast talker but he never won either because I knew that I was right.” Arguments ranged from women’s rights to apartheid, to whether police had the moral authority to beat up Vietnam War demonstrators.

These early formative experiences facilitated Wells’ ability to articulate her point of view and when she moved on to York University, where she studied political economics, she became an active participant in the protests against the war and racism, as well as an ardent supporter of the women’s rights movement. Later, she acquired her master’s in Canadian studies at Carleton University in Ottawa and worked part-time as an educational assistant for a class of children with behavioural problems.

Wells decided to enter teaching in the mid 1980s and enrolled at McArthur College, Queen’s University. Working in the Kingston area as a core French teacher, she moved from one classroom to another, and soon found herself in the unique position of observing other teachers’ concerns and problems from a first-hand perspective. “Teachers are generally not political,” observes Wells. “We read a lot, we work with paper a lot, we have lots of great skills but we’re not used to standing up for ourselves.” As an individual who had always spoken up for the rights of others, she gradually became an unofficial spokesperson for the teachers with whom she worked.

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