Different strikes for different folks

With few resources and no extended family in Ottawa, some new Canadians who are taking ESL classes to broaden their opportunities here say the ongoing school strikes are getting in the way of their studies.

Some new Canadians say their families are suffering under ongoing school labour dispute

From left to right, Abdessalem Khalladi, Eugene Litoshenko and Shi Wang Pang are trying to learn English, but must skip their ESL classes to stay home with their school-age children on strike days. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

The slow drip of school strikes across Ontario, now in its third month, is affecting different families in different ways, but one group is really feeling the pressure.

New Canadians struggling to gain a foothold here often have fewer resources to spend on private or city-run day camps. Their employers may be less flexible than federal government workplaces, with their generous family leave and work-from-home policies. And the grandparents might be thousands of kilometres away instead of just across town.

A visit to an ESL class at Ottawa's Westgate Shopping Centre offers a glimpse into the unique challenges facing these parents when their kids' teachers walk off the job. 

I go from 21 people to about four people in my class. It's really bad.-Jane Maxwell, ESL teacher at Graybridge Malkam

Graybridge Malkam's Jane Maxwell teaches English to students from countries around the world including Syria, Colombia, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates. She sees the impact of a school strike day first hand.

"Oh, it's huge. Literally, I go from 21 people to about four people in my class. It's really bad," Maxwell said.

ESL teacher Jane Maxwell says on school strike days, her own class of 21 students dwindles to as few as four. 'It's slowing them down so much.' (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

In a bid to keep those parents learning, Maxwell has started offering an online component for parents who have to stay home with their school-age kids

"It's slowing them down so much. Some of the people I've seen maybe two or three times this month because a lot of my people have children in the Catholic board and the public board, and so they're staying home for both of them."

It's posing a challenge for Maxwell also.

"You cannot move forward. It's not fair to do a test when people aren't here … because it's not their fault that they're not here. So you're always juggling," she said.

"I have couples who [trade] off. One will stay home one time, and the other will stay home the next. But they're still only getting half the work."

Eugene Litoshenko stays home on strike days with his two young kids, but finds he can't get much studying done. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Eugene Litoschenko and his family came to Canada from Ukraine two years ago. His wife is a licensed hair-stylist and Litoschenko, who has a master's degree in economics, is studing ESL full time with the goal of becoming a real estate agent. On strike days, he's the one who stays home with their kids, seven and five.

I can't study at home because I have two kids. Every 10 seconds, 'Daddy, look at this! Daddy, play with me!'- Eugene Litoschenko, ESL student

"I can't study at home because I have two kids. Every 10 seconds, 'Daddy, look at this! Daddy, play with me! Daddy, make something!' OK, yes, I want to make them happy. It's so hard to study at this moment. It's frustrating, 100 per cent. It's not an effective way to study."

Shi Wang Pang, who came to Canada from China 10 years ago, brings her two-year-old son to the onsite daycare at the language school while her 11-year-old daughter attends Grade 6 at a French immersion school. Shi Wang, who's been working as a labourer while her husband works full time at a restaurant, wants to attend college or university down the road.

Shi Wang Pang asks a classmate for help in her ESL class at Graybridge Malkam. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

But on strike days, she must stay home with her children, making it difficult to take advantage of her teacher's online lessons.

"When I open the computer, my little boy pushes the buttons. My daughter, she stays home. I don't want her to watch TV all day, watch the iPad. I want to take her out, to skate, to go sliding."

Abdessalem Khalladi and his wife arrived from Tunisia seven months ago with their three kids, ages 12, 10 and eight. Khalladi, who was a mechanical engineer and a teacher back home, is learning English to help find work in his field here in Ottawa. His wife is also enrolled in ESL.

On strike days, they take turns staying home. Like his classmates, Khalladi finds it difficult to study home when the kids are underfoot. 

Abdessalem Khalladi and his wife, who's also studying ESL, take turns staying home with their three kids, ages 12, 10 and eight. (Abdessalem Khalladi)

Khalladi said the strikes have an impact on all members of his family, including his kids.

"If you're going to school, and then stop, going, and then stop, it's a big problem. It's trouble for my kids," he said. "When you start a task, no matter what kind, and you're interrupted, it's very difficult to obtain your objective."

Neither Litoshenko, Shi Wang nor Khalladi have parents in Canada, so there are no grandparents to turn to for help on strike days. Expensive day camps aren't an option for them either.

Litoshenko said he wishes school boards would offer a day program for students on strike days — "no lessons, just play, and staffed by volunteers" — so parents can go to work and ESL students can work on becoming fluent.  

The language school provides daycare for preschoolers, but on strike days most parents have to stay home with their older children. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

The City of Ottawa offers full day camps on days when students are out of school, including 10 school strike days as of  Friday, at up to 20 sites across the city. The cost is $40 per day.

If that fee is a barrier for families, the city can help

"They can come in person to their nearest City of Ottawa recreation facility … and inquire about the Hand in Hand program," said Carly Haydt, a recreation supervisor responsible for the Heron Road Community Centre and the Jim Durrell Recreation Complex.