Ontario education workers set to strike Friday in defiance of back-to-work law

Parents and students should expect Ontario’s schools to be closed Friday, as education workers using their collective right to strike face fines after the Doug Ford government pushed a law onto the books that their union has described as “a call to arms.”

With jeers erupting from the opposition NDP and Liberal benches at Queen’s Park, the Progressive Conservative government passed the Keeping Students in Class Act into law Thursday, using the notwithstanding clause to avoid any potential challenges from courts and tribunals.

It is a move civil liberty groups and others have decried, with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association calling the clause’s use in the bill “a catastrophe” that violates labour rights in a way that is “both unconscionable and completely unnecessary.”

MPP Mike Schreiner, leader of Ontario’s Greens, wants Ottawa to do something about it. Schreiner has written to the federal Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti to ask for help.

“Precedent and history are clear that the notwithstanding clause was never meant to be used except in extraordinary circumstances, and certainly not to override individual Charter rights,” he wrote, calling the government’s attitude to the clause “cavalier.”

Lametti has called Ontario’s use of the notwithstanding clause “exceedingly problematic” but said the feds wouldn’t decide how to respond until after a decision is made in its appeal of Quebec’s use of the clause to ban public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, however, said the unusual move was necessary to make sure children remain in school.

“We need kids in school,” he said. “Every parent knows this, and our government will deliver on a plan and a promise to provide stability for kids who have endured so much from this pandemic.

“We will use every tool available to send a clear, unambiguous message: schools should be open, and there's accountability for breaking the law,” Lecce said.

The tools Bill 28 provides to deliver that stability include fines of up to $4,000 a day for individual strikers and $500,000 for unions that organize them.

Both CUPE and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which encouraged its 8,000 education members to walk out in solidarity with CUPE, say they will deal with any fines their members receive for engaging in strike action.

“We are giving our members clear instructions,” Candace Rennick, CUPE’s national secretary-treasurer, said. “If you are fined on the picket line, you report that fine to your president and you let the union know and we will provide you with further instructions. We are in the process of seeking legal support on that.

“If the government of Ontario wants to clog up the justice system with $4,000-per-member-per-day fines, then I say bring it on,” she said.

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer