It's strike day for almost 400,000 students in Ontario as nearly half the province's elementary teachers walked off the job in a bid to maximize pressure on the government before the Christmas holidays.
Dubbed Super Tuesday, the biggest one-day strike so far – which has closed more than 1,000 schools – left parents scrambling to arrange alternate care for their children as the temperature rises between teachers and the government.
Teachers wearing placards and singing strike-themed versions of Christmas carols picketed outside schools and strategic sites, such as the offices of the Ministry of Education, the Toronto District School Board and the Peel District School Board.
"Any teacher you talk to here will tell you this is not about a wage freeze. Every single person agreed to a wage freeze," Laura Roberts, a teacher at Kensington Public School, said outside the Ministry of Education in Toronto. "This is about people's rights getting taken away and things we've worked really hard for over the years that are going to be stripped without our consent."
Before bells even rang in empty schools, Education Minister Laurel Broten and Premier Dalton McGuinty appeared on breakfast shows to voice their displeasure at the teachers' job action.
"To those parents who are making special arrangements, I thank them for their patience, for their understanding and all the extra efforts they are making to manage this circumstance. Thankfully, it's just the one day," Mr. McGuinty told Citytv.
However, the labour unrest threatens to spill over as union leaders warn of future disruptions and walkouts. Beyond the current rotating strikes, elementary teachers have voted to stage a day of protest – essentially an illegal strike – if Ms. Broten uses her powers under Bill 115 to try to stop teachers from engaging in job action.
More than 35,000 elementary teachers at eight public school boards, including those in Toronto, Peel, Durham and Waterloo, took to picket lines Tuesday.
About 60 educators wearing signs saying "Respect Teachers, Respect Collective Bargaining" picketed the Toronto constituency office of Kathleen Wynne, a provincial Liberal leadership candidate and former education minister. They sang strike-themed Christmas carols – such as I'm Dreaming of a Fair Contract to the tune of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas – and received occasional honks of support from passing motorists.
However, Ms. Wynne won't be meeting with the teachers, saying she is travelling to Ottawa. "While I can't be there, I understand your concerns and want to make sure we keep working together to improve our schools," she said in a statement given to the protesters. A representative for Ms. Wynne later said she had spoken by phone with one of the teachers outside her office.
Parents responded to the strike by taking the day off work, making alternative child care arrangements and signing up for special strike-day events at museums, recreation centres and sports clubs.
Toronto parents Linda Kessler and Stephen Shapiro decided that their best option was for Mr. Shapiro, who works in sales, to work from home Tuesday while also caring for their nine-year-old daughter.
"I think ultimately it really does hurt the children," said Ms. Kessler, a vice-president of a gaming company. "Of course, it's an inconvenience and parents want the best for their children, but it really does come down to affecting the children – whether it's no more extra-curricular activities and then missing school. It's really an unfortunate situation."
Ms. Kessler said her daughter, who is in Grade 4, is missing out on choir practices and the school play because some teachers have curbed their involvement in extra-curricular activities as part of the job action.
Meanwhile, Progressive Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod called on Ms. Broten to use Bill 115 – which the Tories supported – to end the strikes.
"The McGuinty Liberals have the ability, the power and the authority to end these strikes today," she told reporters Tuesday. "They chose to ignore their legislation in Bill 115 when these strikes started, we're simply asking them to invoke their own law."
Elementary teachers across the province have been abandoning classrooms in a rotating schedule of one-day strikes for nearly two weeks, and the government has said it will not block them as long as the walkouts are limited to one day. Pressure is mounting on the government, however, to stop the disruption and the Ministry of Education has indicated it will be more willing to act after Dec. 31, when the deadline for bargaining has passed.
Meanwhile, job action by teachers who are withdrawing from administrative duties is expected to continue. As long as tensions remain with the Ontario government, teachers are unlikely to resume voluntary activities, such as coaching sports teams, supervising clubs and offering students extra academic support after school.
The Ontario Liberals have said that cutting teachers' sick days down from 20 to 10, and delaying a pay grid that sees their salaries climb from about $40,000 to $90,000 over 10 years was necessary in order to tackle a $14-billion provincial deficit, while preserving job-generating programs such as caps on primary-class sizes and full-day kindergarten.
With reports from Tu Thanh Ha and The Canadian Press