Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten reminded the province’s teachers on Thursday that her government has the legislative "tools" to impose a labour agreement if elementary teachers proceed with plans to strike as early as Monday.
"I’m very disappointed to learn that our public elementary school teachers will be moving to strike action," Broten said. "We do not want students in the middle and we will not let their success be threatened in the classroom.
"We will continue to negotiate until we reach agreements or we will use the tools available to us," she said. "I don’t want to speculate on what tools we would use, but we will continue to negotiate until we reach agreements."
Broten’s comments come in response to a statement issued Wednesday by the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) announcing that its members could begin strike action starting next week.
The union has said it would give parents three days' notice before starting any strike action, which Broten said Thursday gives parents little time to prepare.
Broten said her government would be willing to use powers in legislation passed in September that allows the government to quash strikes and impose agreements that will freeze wages.
Her comments come in what is emerging as a high-stakes showdown with teachers.
No decision on extent of strike action
ETFO president Sam Hammond said Thursday a decision has not been made yet as to whether his members will engage in rotating strikes, full strikes or day-long walkouts.
Hammond said government legislation has set "rigid" restrictions on what agreements must look like between boards and their teachers, which has curtailed progress.
"We're prepared to implement and exercise all of our rights under the Ontario Labour Relations Act," Hammond said.
"So over the next, about 2½ weeks, all of our locals will be in a legal strike position."
Tentative agreements for high school teachers reached through negotiating at three school boards were rejected in two instances by union members this week.
Secondary teachers in the Grand District School Board, which covers Guelph, Dufferin County and Wellington County, supported an agreement reached with the school board and approved by Broten.
In a statement on Thursday, Broten said the Grand District agreement "illustrates that local agreements are possible when everyone works together to find solutions that put students first."
Federation for teachers doesn't want strike
Broten said Thursday there is still time to reach agreements at the negotiating table.
Ontario secondary school teachers are already working to rule in many schools, and refusing many administrative duties.
Hammond said Thursday that the province has left his own union, which represents some 76,000 teachers and education professionals in the elementary system, no option but to strike.
"[A strike] is the very last thing we want to consider," he said. "We have made no progress with any negotiations that we are having at the local level, nor have we with the provincial government. We just cannot stand by and let the provincial government attack our fundamental rights."
Progressive Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod said the Liberal legislation has failed to prevent labour strife from affecting students.
"The Liberals promised there would be no disruptions in the school year," MacLeod said in a statement. "And all-out strikes could occur this month, pushing our education system toward the brink of chaos."
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak pointed to the current prorogation of the Ontario legislature as another factor in the situation involving the teachers.
"We should be working in the House to make sure that the government actually acts, so our kids can count on their education," he told reporters Thursday.
"But Dalton McGuinty decided to walk away from the job and all the Ontario Liberals are on a sort of vacation from real work, we’ve got a crisis in our schools."
McGuinty announced in October that he was stepping down after 16 years as Liberal leader, but would stay on as premier until his party chooses a successor.
He also prorogued the legislature.