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20 Years Later, Our Commitment to Public Education is as Strong as Ever

Sam Hammond

This year we celebrate an important milestone, ETFO’s 20th anniversary. In 1998, when the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario (FWTAO) and the Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation (OPSTF) joined to form ETFO, we faced a devastating attack on public education and the teaching profession by the government. The years under Mike Harris’ PC government were characterized by attacks on public services, healthcare and social services symbolized by the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, which killed seven people. On the education front, the Harris Conservatives transformed education governance by amalgamating school boards, reducing their role and authority and removing school boards’ ability to raise revenue through property taxes. Elements of the education funding formula introduced by the Harris government to cut education funding shortchange public education to this day.

While the Harris years were devastating, the days of action that formed the response from labour and community groups created lasting solidarities. And it is on these solidarities that we draw as we organize to respond to the Ford Conservative government. Despite the struggles we have had since our formation as a union, we have made tremendous gains over the years through our solidarity and our collective action.

Like Harris, the Ford government spent its first weeks in office bringing chaos to Ontario – cancelling the basic income project, firing half of Toronto city hall, backing away from funding for refugees, getting rid of Cap and Trade, cancelling important curriculum writing sessions, and eliminating the $100 million school repair fund. Unfortunately, this list goes on.

In late August, that government released statements on the state of the education system and their plans for public consultations. Their communications were troubling on a number of fronts. They showed a lack of understanding of Ontario public education, its systems and protocols. They suggested that parents cannot openly communicate with classroom educators. They reflected a troubling lack of basic knowledge of previous consultations on a host of important education issues, including standardized testing and the Health and Physical Education Curriculum. By introducing a “snitch line” where parents can anonymously report individual teachers, bypassing the systems already in place to deal with issues at a school level, the government is attempting to undermine a school community’s ability to address concerns constructively.

Thanks in part to the dedicated work of ETFO members, Ontario has an outstanding education system. The Ford Conservative government is manufacturing a crisis in order to advance an agenda we expect will include undermining support for teachers and other education professionals, privatization and cuts to the public sector.

The best educators can do this fall is ensure they are creating safe and healthy classrooms for all students, which includes using their professional judgement on teaching topics related to the repealed sexual health component of the updated 2015 Health and Physical Education Curriculum. ETFO will provide support and vigorously defend members if there is a complaint lodged against them.

Since the introduction of the government’s “snitch line” it has been heartening to see parents and others using it as an opportunity to support both educators and the 2015 Health and Physical Education Curriculum. A similar show of solidarity happened on August 14, when delegates to ETFO’s annual meeting, along with our community allies, students and parents, joined together to rally for the modern health curriculum. Speakers student Rayne Fisher-Quann, actor Debra McGrath and her daughter Kinley Mochrie, Canadian Civil Liberties Association executive director Michael Bryant, and lawyer and member of Muslims for Ontario’s Health and Physical Education Curriculum Saba Ahmad spoke passionately in support of ensuring Ontario students get the contemporary health curriculum that they need to keep them informed and safe. This rally was an incredible show of solidarity and resilience and perhaps prophetic of our work together across our different communities in the years to come.

There is a direct correlation between strong educator unions and a thriving public education system. Everything from student health and safety to academic achievement is improved when education unions maintain a strong voice in public education policy. I look forward to combining my voice with all of yours as we fight for the education system Ontario students deserve.

– Sam Hammond