Ontario teachers plan large protest at legislature during provincewide strike

TORONTO — Ontario's public school teachers are planning a huge protest at the legislature on Friday to coincide with their provincewide strike.

The job action by the four major teachers' unions is expected to shut down schools across Ontario, leaving about two million students out of class. Teachers and education workers will be picketing at various schools and politicians' offices across the province but, in Toronto, the legislature is the only picket location.

The unions say that means as many as 30,000 people will attend. Legislative security is bracing for a large crowd and has said the road around the building will be closed.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said he hopes it sends a message to the government.

"The minister of education points the finger of blame at everybody but himself," Bischof said. "What's clear in this historic event is that the common denominator for all of the chaos in Ontario's publicly funded education system is the destructive (Premier Doug) Ford education agenda."

This is the first time since 1997 that teachers and education workers from Ontario's main education unions will all be out of their classrooms on the same day, the unions say.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he wants union leaders to heed the concerns of parents who want their children in school.

"Two million students should be in class (Friday)," he said. "These strikes are impacting the very kids that we all purport to care about."

Members of the four unions in Peel Region were also planning a mass picket, with teachers set to form a 30-kilometre line from Caledon down to the lakeshore in Mississauga.

Meanwhile, bargaining was ongoing Thursday for English Catholic teachers and those in the French system, as both unions entered a second straight day of talks.

Negotiations on Wednesday went to about 11 p.m. with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, who is also planning a round of rotating strikes next week.

Lecce has been signalling flexibility on class sizes — one of the most contentious issues in ongoing negotiations, particularly for secondary teachers. He has said he would rather make further moves on class sizes than on compensation for teachers.

The government announced last spring it would increase average high school class sizes from 22 to 28 and require students to take four e-learning courses to graduate.

Lecce has since offered to instead increase average high school class sizes to 25 and require two online learning courses, but the unions have been pressing for no class size increases and for no mandatory e-learning courses.

All the teachers' unions are asking for around two per cent in annual salary increases, while the government won't budge beyond offering one per cent. It passed legislation last year capping wage hikes for all public sector workers at one per cent for three years. The teachers' unions and several others are fighting the law in court, arguing it infringes on collective bargaining rights.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2020.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press