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Teachers and education workers gathered outside the Ontario legislature in August to protest against a controversial bill to impose wage freezes on Ontario teachers.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Each of them is a former Ontario education minister. Each of them is vying to replace Dalton McGuinty as Premier and Liberal Leader. And each of them has a different position on how the province has dealt with its teachers and how to re-engage them in the wake of labour acrimony.

For Gerard Kennedy, Kathleen Wynne and Sandra Pupatello, repairing the relationship with teachers is a political imperative. Bill 115 undid nine years of goodwill – and support at the ballot box – that had built up between the Ontario Liberals and teachers, thanks in part to their efforts. Teachers campaigned for the Liberals as recently as the last election, just over a year ago, but abandoned them in September's by-elections in Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo.

Mr. Kennedy, who served in the education portfolio from 2003 to 2006, sees the legislation that set the terms of educators' contracts and led to resentment and job action as unnecessary.

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"From the outside I don't understand the need for it [Bill 115]," he said. "I would not rely on it if I'm in a position to help or co-ordinate with an education minister."

The government's one-size-fits-all approach to public-sector workers, including teachers, was not the right tactic, Mr. Kennedy told the Globe and Mail. Teachers have been big supporters for the Liberal government, he said, and the goodwill in education needs to be restored.

However, he would not offer specifics on what incentives he would offer teachers, or with what funding. The government has forced teachers to accept cuts to their sick days and across-the-board pay freezes, which temporarily block young members from getting their annual experience-based pay bumps. Mr. McGuinty has maintained that these concessions were required in order to balance a $14.8-billion deficit while at the same time preserving job-generating initiatives such as caps on primary class sizes and full-day kindergarten.

Kathleen Wynne, who served as education minister from 2006 to 2010, stood by her government's decision.

"We said in the budget that if we couldn't get agreements, that if we couldn't get a pause on salary increases, then we would look at other mechanisms including legislation," said Ms. Wynne, who left cabinet to make her leadership bid.

Education insiders speak highly of how Ms. Wynne handled past negotiations, but she wouldn't comment on whether things would have turned out differently if she'd been in charge.

"This has been a very painful period for me politically and personally," she said. "We absolutely have to salvage that relationship."

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Leadership contender Sandra Pupatello, who was education minister briefly in 2006 but left her seat in the legislature before Bill 115 was introduced, put some distance between herself and the McGuinty government, refusing to say whether she would have supported the legislation.

"It's impossible to say," she said. "None of us on the outside know everything that went into those decisions."

Though the Liberals have a strong track record on public education, it could be risky for candidates to make it a central part of their platform right now, according to Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education. The race will likely force the party to decide whether they want to repair their relationship with teachers, or move on without them, she said.

"That is going to be interesting to watch," Ms. Kidder said. "Unions do give up on parties."

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