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Ontario elementary teachers can strike with repeal of Bill 115, their lawyer argues

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), speaks at a news conference in Toronto on Friday December 21, 2012.

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There's nothing stopping Ontario's elementary teachers from going on strike now that a controversial piece of legislation has been repealed, according to lawyers for the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.

Speaking before the Ontario Labour Relations Board, ETFO lawyer Howard Goldblatt, said now that the provincial government repealed Bill 115 – the legislation that imposed the terms of teachers' contracts – negotiations can resume and the union is in a legal strike position.

"No matter how you look at it, there is no collective agreement," he said. "Everything's gone."

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It's a change in tone from earlier this week, when the union issued a press release calling the repeal of Bill 115 "meaningless."

The Upper Canada District School Board in Eastern Ontario and Trillium Lakelands District School Board in cottage country north of Toronto are asking the Ontario Labour Relations Board to deem that ETFO is engaging in an illegal strike by telling teachers they must not attend field trips and stop participating in sports teams and clubs.

Union leaders had asked that the hearing be delayed until Wednesday, so they would have more time to prepare. Delaying the hearing would have also allowed the issue to be heard after the Ontario Liberal Leadership Convention, and the selection of a new premier. The labour board's chairmain, Bernard Fishbein, denied that request, and the hearing is expected to continue throughout the day Friday.

Other boards that have considered making similar complaints fear that joining the hearing could sour already strained relations with local unions. The hearing is being closely watched by education officials across the province, as the outcome could get the school year back on track for thousands of students and parents who have been affected by the labour strife that has plagued the public-school system since September.

The withdrawal of services by teachers at the two boards' schools has been among the most extensive in the province, and continues despite the imposition of a contract by the province on Jan. 3.

Until their contract expires in the fall of 2014, teachers can't go on strike and boards can't lock them out, according to Robin Basu, a lawyer for Ontario's Ministry of Education.

"The repeal changes nothing," he said. Bill 115 "has done its work."

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In an e-mail to the Upper Canada District School Board's elementary teachers dated Jan. 17, union local president Margaret Merpaw offers advice for teachers who feel "pressured to participate in voluntary activities."

She suggests that teachers assert that they are "focusing" on their teaching, or that their "workload is becoming so great" they don't have time to lead extracurricular activities such as sports teams and clubs.

Although teachers lead extracurriculars on a voluntary basis, union leaders are telling their members it is mandatory that they stop.

A memo dated Jan. 16 by Trillium Lakeland's union leaders stated that field trips and extracurriculars are "voluntary activities and members should not participate in them - full stop."

"We have a moral responsibility to challenge this," Greg Pietersma, chairman of the Upper Canada District School Board, said earlier this week. "To allow an outside organization which is not accountable to my community to disrupt our schools is not appropriate."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the first name of Bernard Fishbein, the Ontario labour board chairman. This version has been corrected.

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Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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