Ontario's Liberal government did not ask to see receipts for the expenses of three teachers' unions before secretly paying them $2.5-million to cover their costs during contract talks.
Education Minister Liz Sandals admitted on Thursday that there are no itemized accounts of exactly what taxpayers' money paid for. "You're asking me if I have receipts and invoices. No, I don't," Ms. Sandals said when asked if there was any accounting for the expenses, adding she'd "make no apologies" for the payouts.
The minister said she was satisfied $2.5-million was reasonable based on her own knowledge of bargaining expenses. The unions had to spend money for officials to travel to meetings in Toronto, stay in hotels and order pizza during negotiating sessions, she said.
"We know what hotel rooms cost, we know what meeting rooms cost, we know what the food costs, we know what 100 pizzas cost," she said. "You don't need to see every bill when you're doing an estimate of costs. I don't ask."
The government handed $1-million each to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, plus $500,000 to the smaller Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens as part of labour deals reached in August.
The secret payments came to light this week, after The Globe and Mail obtained copies of the government's confidential deals with OSSTF and OECTA. The deals do not contain itemized accounting for the bargaining expenses.
OSSTF president Paul Elliott and OECTA president Ann Hawkins have both told The Globe the payments did not cover all their bargaining expenses; neither union released the total amount of bargaining costs.
Ms. Sandals also refused on Thursday to say how much the government paid teachers' unions in contract talks in 2004, 2008 and 2012 to defray their expenses. "I'm not sure that it is useful to go back and rake through the history," she said.
Premier Kathleen Wynne dodged questions on the subject in the daily Question Period.
"Will the Premier answer two simple questions?" Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown asked. "How much money did she pay the unions and their associations for their bargaining costs? No. 2: Where did that money come from?"
Ms. Wynne responded: "The fact is what we have to do is we have to come to an agreement.… We need a working partnership with our education workers and with trustee associations."
That partnership has been strong. During the 2014 provincial election campaign, OSSTF and OECTA together spent more than $3-million on advertising, mainly aimed at attacking the PCs, the Liberals' chief rivals.
According to Elections Ontario records, OECTA spent $2,174,433 on ads, while OSSTF spent $386,454. The unions also gave $250,000 each to the Working Families Coalition, which ran further negative advertising about the PCs.
The three unions also donated a combined $41,430 directly to the Liberals during the campaign.
Meanwhile, the one provincial teachers union that has not yet settled, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, announced on Thursday its 78,000 members will stop performing all extracurricular activities next week. Ms. Sandals and Ms. Wynne called a meeting with ETFO leaders, as well as unions representing school support staff who have not settled, for Friday morning in the cabinet room at Queen's Park.
ETFO has said that, unlike the other teacher unions, it has not received any government payment for its bargaining expenses and would not accept one.
ETFO and the province blame each other for the breakdown in talks. ETFO president Sam Hammond said the government has ignored his requests to resume bargaining.
"Our members do not undertake this escalation of strike action lightly, but they understand that reaching a fair and reasonable agreement will not happen unless [the school boards] and the government are present at the bargaining table," Mr. Hammond said.
Ms. Sandals's spokeswoman, Alessandra Fusco, countered that the government has offered to meet with ETFO for several days next week, and called on the union "to focus on bargaining rather than further disruption in our schools."