Toronto

'We're not going away': Labour groups criticize Doug Ford's education changes, protest job cuts

An organized labour group in Ontario wants to derail some of Premier Doug Ford's plans to axe thousands of full-time teaching positions through attrition, while phasing in an increase to intermediate and high school class sizes under the province's education revamp.

Ontario Federation of Labour organized more than 50 provincewide events to oppose education changes

Parents at a Scarborough elementary school hand out flyers on Wednesday to protest the Ford government's plan to cut thousands of teaching positions by attrition under Ontario's new education system. (CBC)

An organized labour group in Ontario wants to derail some of Premier Doug Ford's plans to axe thousands of full-time teaching positions through attrition, while phasing in an increase to intermediate and high school class sizes under the province's education revamp.

"We're not going away," labour leaders said Wednesday on the sidelines of more than 50 Ontario Federation of Labour events. The provincewide action attracted hundreds of people who oppose the Progressive Conservative government's changes to Ontario's education system.

Demonstrators attended public rallies, visited offices of Conservative MPPs and participated in community outreach blitzes on Wednesday morning to pressure Ford to abandon a policy they say will hurt students and teachers. 

"Doug Ford wants people to think that nobody is losing their jobs under his government, but people have lost their jobs," Chris Buckley, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, said at a rally outside David Lewis Public School in Scarborough.

"We want this government to understand that the people of Ontario deserve and want better."

Labour groups across Ontario hung banners over bridges with slogans such as 'Education #Cuts Hurt Kids.' (Submitted by IATSE Local 58)

The Progressive Conservative government laid out significant changes to Ontario's education system in its first-ever budget last week. They include bigger class sizes for Grades 4 to 12, new elementary math and sex-ed curricula, and a provincewide ban on cellphones in classrooms.

The province's controversial plan to eliminate nearly 3,500 teaching positions, described in a memo obtained by CBC News earlier this month, would eventually save $290 million a year from the education budget, the government says.

School boards across the province have warned the move will likely cost them tens of millions of dollars next year and students will feel the effects.

The Toronto District School Board is estimating it will need to fire 216 elementary teachers and 800 high school teachers to accommodate the new provincial budget. Meanwhile, more than 360 teachers with the Peel District School Board have already learned they will no longer have permanent positions heading into the new school year.

When asked about the cuts Wednesday during question period in the legislature, Education Minister Lisa Thompson repeated that no teachers will "involuntarily" lose their jobs.   

"The school system is broken and we're going to get it back on track," she said, adding that the province has invested $1.6 billion in attrition protection.

"We're not going to cave in to the opposition or their forces behind the scenes."

Buckley attacked the claim, describing it as a "smoke and mirrors" tactic to divert attention from the issues. He said the layoff notices are already "flying out the door" and says he fears this is just the beginning. 

"That's a perfect example of just how out of touch with reality, and the workforce, this government is," he said, referring to Ford's promise to make Ontario "open for business."

"We've seen nothing but job loss announcements since this government was elected, and there will be more to come."  

'We don't want to go to war'

At Queen's Park, Ford criticized the protests, saying the PCs want to ensure there's accountability, transparency and that students succeed.

"We have a great system; we just want to make it better," he said.

Teachers' and education workers' contracts expire at the end of August — right before kids go back to school — and the Ford government has signalled its intent to start negotiations as early as April 29.

Ford said the PCs are committed to doing everything it takes to negotiate a fair deal for the teachers, but accused their unions of obstruction.  

"Before the ink was dry when we won the election, the teachers' unions declared war on us," he said.

"We don't want to go to war. We want the teachers in the classrooms. We want the kids in the classrooms, learning."   

Education Minister Lisa Thompson said bargaining could start as soon as this month. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Thompson also touted the province's commitment to student achievement.

"The politics need to be left to the politicians," she said. 

But the fight is far from over, Buckley said. The union movement still intends to organize large protests against the Ford government's changes. 

"We're not going away. We're going to continue to fight this government and all their cuts."

With files from CBC's Linda Ward

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