Liz Sandals aims to fix rift with Ontario teachers

New Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals is confident she can restore the province's strained relationship with teachers and get them to resume extracurricular activities in schools.

New education minister also hopes to restore extracurricular activities

Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley and Premier Kathleen Wynne pose with new Education Minister Liz Sandals at a swearing-in ceremony at Queen's Park on Monday. Sandals is new to cabinet and faces the difficult task of restoring the province's strained relationship with teachers. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Education Minister Liz Sandals said she’s confident the province’s relationship with teachers can be improved despite a bitter labour dispute that resulted in the government imposing contracts on public school teachers earlier this year.

Sandals was picked to replace Laurel Broten as education minister on Monday as new Premier Kathleen Wynne officially named her cabinet.

Sandals, MPP for Guelph, said she plans to draw on her experience as a school trustee and past president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association to ensure the next teacher contracts are the result of negotiation, not legislation.

"It will be challenging, but that’s what makes life interesting," Sandals said Tuesday on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.

"Education has always been my passion, that’s how I came to be an MPP in the first place. I was president of the Public School Boards Association during the [former premier Mike] Harris years, which is why I decided to run … to get a more positive education system."

New to cabinet

Sandals, a cabinet rookie, takes over what may prove to be the most challenging portfolio as the minority Liberals look to avoid an election this year.

Last fall, the province passed Bill 115, legislation that banned strikes. In January, the province used the new law to impose a contract on public secondary school teachers, who had staged a series of rotating, province-wide, one-day strikes in December.

With the contracts in place, the province then repealed the legislation, an act aimed as showing good faith to teachers. Many educators, however, remain angry and feel their rights to collective bargaining have been curtailed by the Liberals.

Teachers unions have asked their members to refrain from supervising extracurricular activities, which are outside their regular duties. As a result, students have had to go without theatre productions, sports teams and clubs this academic year.

"When the adults are having a dispute, it unfortunately reflects down to the students," Sandals told Metro Morning host Matt Galloway. "We need to rebuild the relationships for the sake of the kids."

'My first job is to listen'

How will she do it? Sandals said she will work to bring school boards and teachers together at the bargaining table with the province.

"I think my first job is to listen," said Sandals. "Premier Wynne has already reached out to the unions, the conversation has already begun. Now my job is to step in and carry on with that conversation, looking for ways we can move forward more productively."

Like Wynne, Sandals said the Liberal government will not re-open the contracts, which have a two-year term.

"That doesn’t that mean that we can’t talk about how to put in place a workable system of collective bargaining for the future," she said. "I’ve had a good working relationship with a lot of these organizations in the past."

Sandals said the first priority will be restoring extracurricular activities in schools.

"Teachers love doing extracurricular activities," she said. "That’s one of their chief joys as a teacher. We need to find a way to let them do what they want to do."

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak was asked Tuesday about his feelings on Wynne handing such a demanding assignment to a first-time minister.

"It's not so much, in my point of view, how much time Liz Sandals has been in the house or in cabinet, it’s what plan you’re going to implement," Hudak told reporters at Queen's Park.

The Conservatives have suggested forcing teachers to do extracurricular activities by putting it into their contracts.