Teachers' job action cancels Hamilton Christmas play

Most showings of a Christmas play in Hamilton, Ont., have been cancelled because of job action that's underway in Hamilton schools, organizers say.

'Santa's Big Sleep' being moved out of The Music Palace

The empty chair set out for Santa at the Music Palace on concession street. Performances of Santa's Big Sleep have been moved out of the theatre because of job action by the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. (Adam Carter/CBC)

To hear playwright Lee Fairbanks tell it, being a student in Hamilton this holiday season is a lot like being a Who in Dr. Seuss' Whoville.

And that makes the heads of the teacher's union the Grinch, he said.

"It's just disgraceful," said Fairbanks, who is the writer and producer of Santa's Big Sleep, a play that was scheduled to run next week at the Music Palace on Concession Street.

Fourteen hundred students from kindergarten to Grade 4 were set to take in the show, which coincidentally is about a postal strike that threatens to ruin Christmas.

But Thursday, management at the theatre were told that because of job action that's taking place in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, students wouldn't be coming.

"It's like stealing Christmas from children," Fairbanks said. "This is just like an act of bullying."

Still, he was quick to voice his support for teachers themselves — it's the union that he sees as the problem.

"I've dealt with hundreds of teachers in the last 10 years," he said. "There isn't a single one I've heard from that supports this action."

"This is a totally unfair situation for everyone, and I don't think it reflects most teachers at all."

Walking out

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has instructed teachers to start work-to-rule action as soon as they're legally able — so it's expected that there will be no extra-curricular or volunteer duties performed by teachers as of Tuesday. That includes field trips.

The union has also said every public elementary school in the province will have a one-day walkout by teachers before the start of the Christmas holiday.

An ETFO spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that the walkouts will begin Monday and all will occur before schools take the holiday break.

The teachers' union has said the walkouts are in protest of Bill 115, which gives government the power to stop strikes and impose a collective agreement if it doesn't like what the union and local boards negotiate.

The Hamilton representative for the ETFO did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the situation.

The show must go on

According the Music Palace's ownership, Santa's Big Sleep was being offered at a reduced rate for students at these shows.

"The theatre's doors were open for basically less than cost," said owner Rick Kemp. "We were trying to live up to our responsibility as a community theatre."

But the show must go on. So Fairbanks and his crew are going to pack up the set and drive it from school to school, performing twice a day in gymnasiums and auditoriums so that students still get to see it.

It's a bit of a consolation prize, he says.

"It's a lot different going into their gym and performing as opposed to a trip to a real theatre," Fairbanks said. "It's just not the same thrill."

Then there's the seven students from George L. Armstrong Elementary that are in the production, playing elves.

"They've been rehearsing for two months for this," Fairbanks said. "Doing it in this theatre would have been the thrill of a lifetime."

So instead of gracing a real stage they'll be performing in school gyms — except for their own. Friday afternoon, Armstrong school officials cancelled because without the teachers help they don't feel they can collect the $5 admission fee from students, Fairbanks says.

"Two hundred and thirty kids won't see the show because of the union's decree," he said. "So they are managing to steal Christmas from some students."

A single showing of Santa's Big Sleep is taking place for the general public on Sat. Dec. 15 at the Music Palace.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $6 for children. The show starts at 1 p.m.

For more information, visit the Music Palace website.