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Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath speaks during a campaign event focused on education in Toronto, on May 10, 2018.

MARTA IWANEK/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s largest education union has abandoned Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals for the first time in more than a decade, withdrawing teacher support after increasingly strained relationships.

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), which represents 81,000 education workers, said on Thursday that his union has endorsed the New Democratic Party and Leader Andrea Horwath.

“For some time now our members [and] our executive have felt that the Liberal government has not been working closely with us for the betterment of students and publicly funded education,” Mr. Hammond told reporters at his union’s headquarters in Toronto where Ms. Horwath made a campaign stop on Thursday.

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Education has quickly become one of the key battlegrounds in this election, with party leaders highlighting how they would overhaul testing and curriculum. A day ahead of the campaign kickoff, Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford promised radical changes that included scrapping and replacing the sex-education and math curriculums, moves that would appeal to families who have expressed repeated concerns around these issues.

ETFO and several other education unions have been part of a strategic voting initiative dating back to 2003 and aimed at preventing a Progressive Conservative government. That meant locals supported a combination of Liberal and NDP candidates.

Teachers have been key members of the Liberals’ political base and the party has taken several measures to buy labour peace ahead of the election campaign. The endorsement of one party – the NDP − came on the second day of the provincial election campaign and was labelled by the NDP as “historic.”

While Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath got a teachers’ union endorsement on Thursday, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and PC Leader Doug Ford both visited Toronto hospitals on the second day of the province’s election campaign. The Canadian Press

The move by ETFO follows a bitter contract dispute with then-premier Dalton McGuinty’s government in 2012 and more recently the union, along with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), filing an unfair-labour practice complaint against Ms. Wynne’s government for bad-faith bargaining.

The NDP endorsement could be a way of teaching the Liberals a lesson for causing bitter labour disruptions in recent years, said Geneviève Tellier, a political studies professor at the University of Ottawa.

“Different groups of public servants try to penalize the government if there was a labour issue,” Prof. Tellier said. “It is a way of reminding any current government or future governments to be careful [and] that there could be some electoral consequences.”

ETFO’s endorsement of the NDP is more “symbolic,” Prof. Tellier said. But it could also mean stronger support for local candidates through door-knocking and rallies.

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(The OSSTF has not taken a position yet, and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said local units may endorse local candidates, but the provincial association will not directly encourage members to vote for a particular party and will only highlight issues and facts).

At an event on Thursday, Ms. Wynne played down the endorsement and said she has a “long and strong” relationship with teachers.

Mr. Hammond praised the NDP’s education platform which included capping kindergarten classes at 26 students, a moratorium on school closings and scrapping standardized tests conducted by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). Ms. Horwath said she would look at random sampling instead.

Mr Ford also said earlier this week that he would reform the EQAO tests and introduce improved standardized testing.

Many teachers are still upset with the Liberals for violating their collective bargaining rights by introducing Bill 115, a 2012 piece of legislation that, among other things, delayed salary raises and suspended their right to strike. ETFO, as well as four other unions, recently won a court challenge on that issue.

More recently, ETFO and others criticized the Liberals after learning that groups not part of the court challenge were receiving payouts ahead of the election. The unions said it was politically motivated as Ms. Wynne’s Liberals fought to gain support.

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