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Why Ontario teachers went on a province-wide strike in 1997

Ontario teachers walked off the job over a proposed bill by Premier Mike Harris's government that would make big changes to education in the province.
Ontario Teachers' Federation president Eileen Lennon leads thousands of teachers and their supporters on the front lawn of the Ontario Legislature in Toronto during the first day of their strike in 1997. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

In a rare province-wide strike, teachers from all four public-school unions in Ontario won't be reporting for work on Feb. 21.

The one-day strike is the latest event in an ongoing series of job actions by elementary and secondary teachers amid their negotiations for a new contract with the province.

Back in October 1997, a strike kept teachers and students out of the classroom for two weeks.

But unlike the current walkout, the 1997 strike was not about wages. It was about the Mike Harris-led PC government's proposed overhaul to education.

'We will not back down'

Teachers are opposed to the Harris government's Bill 160, but what is it all about? 2:00
  

On Oct. 7 that year, a crowd of 20,000 teachers gathered inside and outside Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens for a rally opposing Bill 160, which introduced legislation for Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris's changes to education.

"If he does not move off his legislative agenda, every school in this province will be shut down," Eileen Lennon of the Ontario Teachers' Federation told the rally. "We will not back down." 

Reporter Steve Erwin outlined some details of the bill.

It would give the province control over the levying of school taxes, the ability to dictate school funding, set class sizes and teacher prep time, and allow non-certified teachers to instruct.

Erwin said the government's stated purpose was to "improve the performance of Ontario schoolchildren."

'Union bluster'

Education Minister John Snobelen told the Opposition his government would take on the "tough questions" regarding Bill 160. (CBLT Newshour/CBC Archives)

But teachers saw it as a pretext to cut $1 billion from the system and lay off up to 10,000 teachers.

Education Minister John Snobelen, himself a high school dropout, dismissed the "union bluster," according to the reporter.

"I wasn't surprised by the turnout or the rhetoric from last night," he said. "I think that was all pretty predictable." 

Snobelen would be replaced as education minister in a cabinet shuffle two days later.

Day 1

Teachers strike illegally to protest a government bill that would give the province control of education. 2:43

Lennon's warning came to pass before the end of the month. Some 126,000 teachers went from teaching inside their schools to picketing outside them.

"Ontario's public education system stopped working today," said the CBC's Susan Bonner, as a bell rang in an empty school hallway.

The sidewalk outside a school in Alliston, Ont., was anything but empty as teachers bearing printed signs walked a picket line in what Bonner described as an "illegal strike."

"It takes away power from the public, from the electorate, from teachers [and] trustees," said a teacher picketing in an autumn snowfall.

A member of the public had ventured out into the weather to let the teachers know his opinion.

"You're crazy, you guys," he told the marching protesters. "You're nuts."

Classrooms were empty on the first day of what would be a two-week strike. (The National/CBC Archives)
 

At the provincial legislature, Harris told reporters the strike and rallies weren't going to stop him from ensuring the bill went forward.

"Our goal is to get our kids back in the classroom," he said.

Dave Johnson, the new education minister, was doing his best to achieve that by filing a court injunction. But it could still take a week for the legal process.

"If I could change all that legal mumbo-jumbo ... and deal with it this afternoon, believe you me, I would," he said.     

Back to school

After two weeks, a teachers' strike in Ontario comes to an end. 2:21

The strike ultimately lasted for two weeks. Kids and teachers alike were back in the classroom on Nov. 10, 1997, as Bonner reported for The National.

"No school for two weeks equals a lot of homework now," she said, as two unimpressed students offered their perspectives.

School was in session, but the teachers weren't moving on to the lesson of the day.

A business teacher encouraged her students to lobby the Conservative MPPs in their area about their concerns.  

Bonner said teachers had conceded they lost this battle, but "the war will continue until the next election."

"If we have to wait that long, we'll have to," said Kenneth Erskine. "But hopefully the public ... will have long memories."

Harris's Progressive Conservatives won a second mandate in the 1999 Ontario election.

Teachers gathered for a rally at Queen's Park, the Ontario legislature, as Premier Mike Harris spoke to the media inside. (The National/CBC Archives)