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Cross-Country Check-Up: An Overview of Changes and Challenges in Education

Vivian McCaffrey

When we step back and examine what education workers in other parts of the country are experiencing and which policies their provincial and territorial governments are adopting, it helps us better understand the situation in Ontario. It also illuminates the extent to which governments shape policies by following the lead of other jurisdictions.

Education workers across Canada are not experiencing the extreme right-wing assaults that characterized the mid-1990s and early 2000s. However, the economic downturn and declining enrolment, experienced broadly nationwide, are leading most provincial governments to adopt an austerity agenda and hold back from introducing education reforms. Given that education unions have memberships that are predominantly female, austerity in the education sector is clearly a women’s issue.

Negotiations Under Austerity

In Ontario, we’re faced with a government focused on balancing its budget through “net-zero” public sector bargaining and by delaying overdue education reforms such as providing more support for students with special needs and reducing class sizes in Kindergarten and grades 4 to 8. It may be small comfort, but educators in other provinces face similar challenges to negotiating salaries that keep up with the cost of living and to achieving improvements to working and learning conditions.

Outside of Ontario, British Columbia presents the most high-profile example of a teacher union battling its government over an austerity agenda. In 2002, the BC government introduced legislation that imposed a net-zero contract on teachers and other education workers and removed the ability of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) to negotiate class size or class composition. BCTF has been fighting the government’s abrogation of bargaining rights since then, winning two favourable decisions from the BC Supreme Court. Both have been ignored by Christy Clark’s Liberal government. BCTF has taken its case to the federal Supreme Court. In the meantime, after a protracted strike in 2014, BCTF’s latest collective agreement provides a 7.25 percent salary increase over five years, not likely to match inflation.

Under a Progressive Conservative government and before the oil crisis, Alberta teachers were subjected to a four-year collective agreement that included a salary freeze for the first three years followed by a two percent increase in the fourth year plus a one percent lumpsum payment. That agreement expires in August. Time will tell whether Alberta teachers fare better under the NDP government. In November, Alberta introduced legislation modelled after Ontario’s education sector bargaining legislation, establishing two-tiered bargaining. In December, in response to lobbying by the school boards’ association, the bill was amended to give trustees a say in determining what would be negotiated at the central table. The trustees may have used the Ontario legislation to support their case. In April, Alberta presented a budget that included salary freezes for MPPs and executive officers in the public service and government funded agencies, a potential harbinger of future public sector bargaining constraints.

Elsewhere in Canada, teachers have mobilized against unacceptable management demands. During fall 2015, Quebec teacher unions participated in strike action that involved a province wide one-day walkout and a series of rotating one-day strikes in the face of government demands for a salary freeze for two years and a one percent increase in each of the following three years. Other demands included larger class sizes, elimination of more than 800 resource teachers and pension changes. Following the strike action, the Quebec unions achieved a settlement that included a 5.25 percent increase over five years plus a 2.5 percent improvement to their salary grid effective 2019. The government backed off its demands to increase class sizes and cut resource teachers. The unions, in fact, achieved lower class sizes for pre-school and Kindergarten programs, which will now range between 14 and 17 students. The teachers, along with other public sector unions, did concede to increasing their retirement age from 60 to 61.

Perhaps in response to union activism and parent protests, the Quebec 2016 budget announced a three percent increase to its education spending for 2016–17 and the following two years, not enough to address shortfalls identified by the unions but at least above inflation and more than the previous year’s 0.2 percent increase.

Negative reaction to concession bargaining is growing among teacher unions. In November, Nova Scotia teachers voted down a tentative agreement that offered a two year wage freeze followed by a one percent increase in the third year. Members of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Association (STA) walked off the job for the first time in history in 2012 in response to an unacceptable contract offer. In their next round, STA members voted twice against tentative agreements before a settlement was achieved through a fraught arbitration process.

Some provincial education unions have fared better on the negotiations front. Through their local bargaining, Manitoba teachers avoided salary freezes by achieving settlements averaging two percent for 2014–15, 2015–16, 2016–17, and 3.02 percent for 2017–18. The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association (NTLA) negotiated a wage package in 2009 that gave their members a 21.5 percent increase over four years that helped address the fact they earn the lowest teacher salaries in the country. In July 2014, NTLA signed a four-year agreement that included a five percent salary increase plus a signing bonus of $1,400. In the Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, where teacher recruitment and retention are constant challenges and the cost of living is high, teachers continue to be the top-earners in the country.

Pent-Up Demand for Education Reforms

Over the last decade or so, Ontario has introduced important education initiatives such as primary class size caps and full day Kindergarten. The Liberal government has increased education funding since taking office in 2003, but the additional funding has only gone part way in addressing the $2 billion in cuts imposed by the former Progressive Conservative government. Not all cuts implemented by the previous government have been restored. Programs such as special education, English as a second language, design and technology, physical education, and the arts continue to be shortchanged at the elementary level. ETFO’s Building Better Schools initiative presents a plan for moving forward on these issues, but the additional investment conflicts with the provincial government’s austerity agenda. The 2016 Ontario budget projects that annual increases to education spending will average only 1.2 percent between 2014–15 and 2018–19.

Across Canada, few provincial governments are introducing positive new initiatives; some have introduced cuts to education. British Columbia has increased class sizes and reduced the number of specialist teachers. Alberta has pulled back from introducing full-day Kindergarten and class sizes are increasing. This has happened despite funding for an additional 740 teachers, as the province fails to keep up with growing student enrolment, a rare phenomenon in Canada. Looking eastward, New Brunswick has eliminated 600 of about 8,000 full-time teachers since 2011. The cuts are a result of declining enrolment but coincide with the province’s first inclusion policy for students with special needs adopted in 2013. In the words of a New Brunswick Teachers’ Association staff member, “We have fewer students but greater needs.” In the face of the economic downturn, Newfoundland is making difficult choices. Its 2016 budget announced a series of tax hikes as well as program cuts. Class size in grades four to 12 will be increased and multi-graded classrooms expanded, resulting in 203.75 fewer teaching positions. The province is moving ahead, however, with its commitment to introduce full-day Kindergarten in the fall, which will partially offset the staff cuts. Nova Scotia, in welcome contrast, delivered a budget this spring that allocates an additional $6.4 million to reduce class sizes up to Grade six.

Regulatory Bodies for Education Professions: A Growing Trend?

The majority of teacher unions have their own internal process for responding to complaints brought against members and for determining the appropriate discipline for those found guilty of non-professional behaviour. However there may be a slow but growing trend towards arms-length, selfregulatory bodies like the Ontario College of Teachers and the more recent College of Early Childhood Educators.

The British Columbia College of Teachers, founded in 1987, was the first Canadian teacher regulatory body and informed the legislation drafted for the Ontario body. The BC College operated until 2011 when the government disbanded it for, in its view,

being too closely allied with BCTF and not effectively carrying out its responsibilities. The College had also come into conflict with the province’s universities over teacher training. The College was replaced by the BC Teachers’ Council whose governing body is more directly connected to the government; the majority of voting members are not practising teachers.

Saskatchewan introduced legislation in December 2014 that led to the establishment of the Saskatchewan Professional Teachers Regulatory Board, a body that, unlike its BC counterpart, is governed by a board that has a clear majority of teachers – seven teachers, three of whom can be elected or appointed by the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Association – and two public appointees. The concept of a self-regulatory body was discussed in Quebec political circles when Ontario’s College was established. It was floated as an election platform issue by the Coalition Avenir Québec in 2012, but hasn’t gained traction since then.

School Boards Face Change and Loss of Authority

Education governance is an issue that surfaces sporadically across the country and is trending towards a reduction in the role and authority of school boards. In Ontario, school boards have lost authority through the loss of local taxation powers and a funding model based solely on provincial grants, legislation that has narrowed the role of school trustees, and a provincial bargaining model that reduces the scope of local bargaining.

Other provinces have introduced more extensive changes to school boards. In 2013, Newfoundland combined its four English language school boards to create one single board. In November 2015, Prince Edward Island announced it was eliminating its English-language school board and replacing it with the new Learning Partners Advisory Council whose members are drawn from the community and education organizations including the Prince Edward Island Teachers’ Association. Both Newfoundland’s and PEI’s French-language boards remain in effect. In December 2015, Quebec introduced legislation that proposes to eliminate province wide school board elections. In defending its policy, the government pointed to the five percent voter turnout in the 2014 local elections and argued that cancelling future elections would save $15 million every four years as well as the $10 million annually that went to trustee salaries. School boards will be replaced by a council consisting of parents, school staff and community members. It will be interesting to see if these changes to local governance affect school boards in other provinces, including Ontario.


A look at education policy and education politics across Canada highlights the importance of education sector unions being engaged in the political process and standing up against governments seeking to balance their budgets at the expense of education workers and the quality of public education. Given the gender profile of ETFO, it also underlines the importance of targeting political action training for our women members and increasing the pool of female ETFO activists.

Taking stock of what’s happening across the country also reveals the extent to which provincial governments are moving towards centralizing control. Keeping abreast of what’s happening beyond our borders helps ETFO anticipate changes at home and learn from the experiences of our sister provinces.

Vivian McCaffrey is an executive staff member at ETFO.