Students stage Queen's Park protest as college strike talks set to resume

Dozens of students from at least 12 public colleges across the province converged on Queen's Park Wednesday to vent their frustrations over the strike that's cancelled their classes for the past two weeks. They gathered on the same day the provincially appointed mediator announced the bargaining teams for the colleges and faculty agreed to resume talks.

College Employer Council and union go back to bargaining Thursday

The College Student Alliance organized a rally at Queen's Park to encourage striking faculty and colleges to come to an agreement. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

Dozens of students from at least 12 public colleges across the province converged on Queen's Park Wednesday to vent their frustrations over the strike that's cancelled their classes for the past two weeks.

They gathered on the same day the provincially appointed mediator announced the bargaining teams for the colleges and faculty have agreed to resume talks.

"Now is the time for them to make a deal," said Joel Willett, the president of the College Student Alliance.

His organization's goal with the Students First Rally was to pressure the Ontario government to get the colleges and the union to reach an agreement.

More than 12,000 college faculty members, including professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians, have been on strike since Oct. 16. The walkout affects 500,000 students. 

"If this strike goes on any longer, this year may be remembered as the first time a semester has been lost due to a strike," said Willett.

Before the protesters arrived Wednesday, it was announced that the bargaining teams for the College Employer Council and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union representing faculty would resume talks Thursday. 

Abdullah Mushtaq, the director of advocacy for the College Student Alliance, is cautiously optimistic.

'It is definitely a good sign,' said Abdullah Mushtaq of the College Student Alliance, reacting to both sides in the college strike agreeing to resume talks. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

"The reality is until there's a deal announced publicly students are still on the outside looking in and will not be in classrooms," he said. 

Union bargaining head 'hopeful' a deal can be reached

​Now that the talks are back on, union bargaining head JP Hornick hopes this means the College Employer Council is ready to shift its position.

"If they're ready to discuss the issues and they're ready to really start negotiating for the first time then I'm hopeful that a settlement can be had quickly," she said.

The union has made several demands, including greater job security, an equal ratio of full-time and non-full time jobs and a larger role for faculty in making academic decisions.

Meanwhile the 24 public colleges have offered a 7.75 per cent salary increase over four years and an improved ratio of contract faculty to full-time jobs.

It was the College Employer Council that first called on the provincial mediator to get both sides back to the bargaining table. 

"This strike has gone on for too long," said Sonia Del Missier, the chair of the colleges' bargaining team, in a news release.

"We need to end the strike and get our students and faculty back in the classroom," Del Missier said.

Politicians have their say

Politicians from all of Ontario's major parties joined the students at Queen's Park, including Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews.

"Students are in the middle of this. You are not the cause of it. You are the victims of it," she told the crowd. 

Matthews said she is "delighted" that the two sides have agreed to go back to the bargaining table but she said it's just the beginning. 

Premier Kathleen Wynne addressed the ongoing strike situation Wednesday before it was announced that bargaining would resume.

"I believe that the agreement needs to be forged at the table," she said.

Wynne said she and the minister were doing what they can to "express our expectation that both sides will look at the situation for students — and re-engage so that we can get kids back into the classroom."