Sudbury

Memories of 1997—what the last big teacher walkout tells us about the current labour dispute

The current labour unrest in Ontario schools is making many think back to 1997, when most of the teachers in the province walked off the job for two weeks.

Former education minister says most controversial reforms from 1997 now 'bedrock' of school system

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)

Back in 1997, Naomi Cheechoo was one of 2.1 million students whose education was put on hold by a two-week teacher walkout.

The OAC student at West Ferris high school in North Bay joined her teachers on the picketline and saw some of them cross into the school as a symbolic gesture of protest against the union. 

"That was a lot more emotional than I would have expected. There were even a couple of students who had decided to take that line and crossed with those teachers," recalls Cheechoo, now a nurse in North Bay.

"And I remember not expecting that it would affect me in that way."

During the rotating strikes of 2019 and 2020, Cheechoo has taken her daughters, 7 and 9, to the picketline with a colourful homemade sign reading "It's time to use our outside voices."

There have been a lot of comparisons between the current labour unrest and the two-week walkout by most Ontario teachers in the fall of 1997.

Both were in response to sweeping education reforms being proposed by a Progressive Conservative government two years into its mandate.

The two-week walkout by Ontario teachers in 1997 was prompted by the PC government's Bill 160 which included a number of education reforms. (OSSTF)

John Snobelen was the education minister back in the late 1990s who oversaw the controversial Bill 160 ushering in standardized testing, the regulatory college for teachers, also stripping school boards of the power to manipulate property tax rates and cutting back on teacher preparation time.

He is proud to say that few of those changes were undone when the Liberals were in power for 15 years and  "now have become the bedrock or foundation of education in the province."

"I have learned that people's memories of those days vary greatly about what actually happened to people. People remember things quite differently in times of these labour disputes," he says. 

"There's an awful lot of rhetoric around that's basically not true. And some people swallow that rhetoric whole. It's never a good idea."

After two weeks on the picketline, teachers went back to work when some of the unions gave up on the walkout that some called 'illegal.' (OSSTF)

Snobelen believes the government and the unions have more common ground now than back in 1997 and feels a settlement isn't far off. But he believes the central argument is the same.

"There's a contest between teacher unions and the government of the day over who will run education, over who decides what the school day looks like," he says.

Gord Ewin, who was the director of education for the English public board in the Sudbury area back in 1997, agrees.

"Every political party has had their fights with teachers and you take that as a matter of fact that's a union job. You have to look back at what the present Premier is trying to do," he says. 

"Certainly you have to reduce the deficit and we have to do it fairly and I and teachers have been fairly well looked after in the past few years."

One key difference is that the 1997 walkout wasn't a strike, it was a protest while there was a collective agreement in place, that fell apart when some unions gave up.

Teacher unions in Ontario have been holding rotating strikes for more than two months now. (Erik White/CBC )

Timmins English Catholic teacher Louis Clausi remembers how deflating that was after some cold days on the picketline.

Now the local union president, he says the ongoing rotating strikes have much more staying power.

"This could go on and on and on, the way it's set up now," Clausi says.

Todd Sintic was a newly-hired high school teacher back in 1997 and is now chief negotiator for English public secondary teachers in the Sudbury area.

"There's an awful lot of parallels to what the government is doing now. It's almost exactly what Mike Harris was doing when he came into power, in terms of trying to revamp the education system," he says.

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.