Union, child protection group at odds over Manitoba teacher misconduct bill
Proposed Bill 35 would create public registry, new discipline system for educators
Manitoba's teachers' union is raising concerns about proposed legislation that would create a new process to address educator misconduct — but an organization that advocates for children's safety says those concerns are misguided.
General counsel Monique St. Germain said the Canadian Centre for Child Protection was puzzled by issues the Manitoba Teachers' Society has taken with the Education Administration Amendment Act, also known as Bill 35, which was introduced in the legislature on Tuesday.
"We see this as a really positive step in the right direction to helping Manitoba processes and procedures for discipline of teachers be more transparent and accountable," St. Germain said.
She said the legislation would bring the province more in line with others including British Columbia and Ontario.
The proposed legislation calls for the appointment of an independent commissioner and panel members to review and rule on complaints regarding incompetence or professional misconduct, including sexual offences.
It also proposes a public teacher registry that would let people see whether a teacher has been disciplined — something the centre for child protection called for last year.
A day after the bill was introduced, the teachers' society released a statement opposing it, arguing in part it would expose teachers to "frivolous and malicious complaints" because of what the union views as an overly broad definition of professional misconduct.
That definition covers any conduct that makes someone "unsuitable to be a teacher," including offences such as sexual abuse, physical harm and significant emotional harm, if it involves a child under their care. St. Germain said she thinks that actually makes the definition fairly narrow.
"It seems to us that that would be exactly the place where you would want to have some sort of a disciplinary process involved," she said.
A recent report from the centre found between 2017 and the end of 2021, 252 current or former school personnel in K-12 schools committed or were accused of committing sexual offences against students. Another 38 were charged for offences related to child sexual abuse materials.
Concerns over wording
Teachers' society president Nathan Martindale was not available for an interview on Friday.
In an emailed statement, Martindale called the bill in its current form unacceptable and said it lacked due process and fairness.
He said the union is also concerned the phrase "significant emotional harm" could be interpreted too broadly, for instance, with things like how a teacher grades a student and whether they include content some deem controversial (such as LGBTQ issues) potentially qualifying.
The bill notes that once the commissioner receives a complaint, they first have to do a preliminary review to see if it's worth taking further action.
But if the complaint meets certain criteria — if it's frivolous, made in bad faith or not in the public interest to pursue, for example — the commissioner can decide right at the beginning to not take further action.
That means a complaint "would have to be pretty serious in terms of the way the wording of the legislation is," St. Germain said.
"That doesn't mean that there couldn't be improvements to the bill. Of course there could. With any piece of legislation, there can always be improvements," she said.
Manitoba Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said the changes proposed in the bill are needed to make the disciplinary process more transparent.
"Right now what we're hearing out there is the fact that it's not as transparent as it could be. It seems to be being held in closed doors," said Ewasko, who was a longtime teacher before getting into politics.
"I think it's a step in the right direction and a step that maybe should have been done quite some time ago."
He said the bill will get a second reading in the legislature in the next few weeks before it can be sent to committee and opened up to the public for comments and suggestions — and he hopes by then, any critics of the bill will have had a chance to do a closer reading of its plans.
"I think at first blush, they're making some insinuations without maybe being well-educated on the bill," Ewasko said.
"Once they get a good handle of what this bill is exactly doing — and that's protecting kids, making sure that they feel safe in the schools that they're going to — I think it should pass by unanimous consent."
There's still time for the bill to be tweaked, Ewasko said. And while he hopes it will be in place for the upcoming school year, there's no guarantee it will be passed into law before this fall's provincial election scheduled for Oct. 3.
With files from Josh Crabb