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A former education minister and school board trustee, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was elected party leader and then won a majority government last year, in part, with the support of the province’s teachers, and an expectation of labour peace. But she has no money to manoeuvre.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

For Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, this has been a messy and difficult week: The high school teachers' strike is spreading across the province, parents are protesting the new sex-education curriculum and hundreds of thousands of elementary students are about to be affected by a work-to-rule campaign.

Behind the scenes, however, a senior labour leader says informal discussions are progressing through back channels, giving some reason for optimism.

Still, Ms. Wynne is in a bind. A former education minister and school board trustee, she was elected party leader and then won a majority government last year, in part, with the support of the province's teachers, and an expectation of labour peace.

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But she has no money to manoeuvre. Her recent budget called for "net zero agreements" with its public sector workers. Any increases must be offset by taking away something else.

So far, Ms. Wynne's public face is calm – and there is no outward sense of urgency.

The opposition, meanwhile, is calling for Education Minister Liz Sandals's resignation, saying she has lost control of the file.

Amid all of this, Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff sees hope.

"They are talking," says Mr. Yussuff. "It is moving."

Mr. Yussuff wouldn't elaborate. But, he says, he met with Ms. Wynne in Toronto on Monday and urged her to get back to the bargaining table with the high school teachers' union. He offered to help in any way he could. He is also in regular contact with Paul Elliott, head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF).

Last September, Mr. Yussuff helped break the logjam between B.C. Premier Christy Clark and the teachers' union that led to a negotiated settlement and a six-year agreement, the longest in the province's history. The B.C. teachers' strike had been going on for five weeks – and he brought the two sides together informally to talk.

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"I think the Ontario teachers' relationship with the government – it's not broken to the degree that the B.C. teachers and the government's relationship was broken," Mr. Yussuff said. "It's not a poisoned relationship in Ontario."

Mr. Yussuff said that because of Ms. Wynne's background as a former education minister "there is a general sense and acceptance in the unions that she understands and respects where they are coming from."

This is in contrast to her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, whose government brought in Bill 115, which curbed teachers' right to strike and imposed collective agreements.

However, Darrell Bricker, the Toronto-based CEO of Ipsos, Global Public Affairs, an international polling firm, points out that the close relationship between Ms. Wynne and teachers can be a double-edged sword.

"Friends fighting with friends is a tough fight," Mr. Bricker said. "This is what got Bob Rae in trouble. When he experienced his greatest cleavage with his own core supporters was when he fell out with various public service unions and we ended up in the Rae Day situation … what makes you strong makes you weak."

For Janet Ecker, the former education minister in Mike Harris's government, it doesn't matter which party forms the government – the teachers will go after it regardless. She says the unions should ask themselves what their obligation is.

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"This continual dispute that goes on regardless of the political stripe at Queen's Park – it's not helping teachers, it's not helping students, it's not helping the reputation of teachers and it's certainly not impressing taxpayers," said Ms. Ecker, who is now the president and CEO of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance. "It undermines the public faith in the system."

Gerard Kennedy agrees that confidence in the public education system should not be trifled with – and taking away service to students must be the last resort.

Mr. Kennedy, now CEO of Alpha Healthcare Group, was education minister from 2003 to 2006 in the McGuinty government, which succeeded Mr. Harris and his Progressive Conservative team.

Mr. Kennedy says one million days were lost because of conflict between Mr. Harris and teachers and enrolment in private schools soared. Now, he's concerned that government and teachers' unions are "slipping back to old habits."

"Withdrawal of service is a serious thing. It's not a tactic. It has to be meaningful," he says. "The public confidence is not something to take for granted."

From his vantage point, University of Ottawa education professor Joel Westheimer sees the job action by teachers as their way of protecting the classroom for students.

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He also noted that, in several American states, teachers are being blamed for everything from "drunk driving to the hedge fund crisis" – and the same attitude, he believes, is spilling over into Canada.

"We have been suffering now for a decade of cultural attacks on the professionalism of teachers," he says. "I think there is a bit of a feeling of empowerment."

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