Ontario's government has struck a tentative agreement with the union representing 55,000 school support workers, but it looks increasingly unlikely any further deals can be reached with teachers before Monday night's bargaining deadline.
The province found common ground with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) – which bargains for support staff such as educational assistants, custodians, librarians and school secretaries – after 30 hours of talks held either side of Christmas, according to a statement released by Education Minister Laurel Broten.
But even as Ms. Broten said she is "hopeful that those school boards, teachers and support staff who have yet to conclude and submit local agreements will do so," the largest Ontario teachers' unions said further talks before the new year are highly unlikely, meaning that Monday's government-imposed deadline is expected to pass quietly.
"I can't imagine how conceivably [new deals] could happen, to be quite honest," said Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) in an interview Sunday. "I guess you should never say never, but certainly it would be well beyond the scope of reality."
As of Tuesday morning, Ms. Broten has the power to impose contracts on teachers and staff under the controversial Bill 115, which allows the government to freeze wages, reduces teachers' ability to bank sick days, and limits their right to strike. Teachers say they have been accepting of wage freezes in fruitless local negotiations, but have launched a court challenge against the bill, arguing it strips them of their collective bargaining rights.
Ms. Broten promised to reveal the government's next steps at a news conference on Jan. 3.
The tentative CUPE contract still needs to be ratified, and will go to the union's leadership on January 5, and then to wider membership votes. Ms. Broten promised agreements reached by the Monday deadline will have 14 days to go through ratification, but refused to extend the negotiating window. But CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn said the union still opposed Bill 115.
"Bill 115 created an unnecessary crisis, making things much more difficult at the bargaining table," Mr. Hahn said.
So far, only 65 of 469 school bargaining units across the province have come to deals that meet the province's strict requirements under Bill 115, the vast majority of them within the English Catholic school board, which settled in July. Earlier this month, select unions such as York Region's rejected locally-bargained tentative deals, dashing fleeting hopes of progress.
"We started discussions with our partners in February – almost a year ago," Ms. Broten said in her statement. "By midnight [Monday] night, all negotiations must be finalized and agreements submitted."
Exactly what the passing of the deadline means for students and parents remains unclear. Elementary school teachers already staged rotating one-day strikes across the province before the Christmas break, and on Dec. 21, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) urged Ms. Broten to hold off on imposing contracts until a new Liberal leader is chosen to replace the departing Dalton McGuinty. But it is unclear whether ETFO plans to escalate strike action in the new year, when it could be deemed illegal.
High school teachers have halted extracurricular activities, withdrawn some administrative duties, and stopped supervising students outside class in protest of Bill 115, and Mr. Coran of OSSTF expects that to continue. He also said his members voted in favour of a day of protest, but no date has been set.
"We'll take one day at a time and see what happens next," he said.
In the meantime, barring an unexpected breakthrough, all eyes will turn to Ms. Broten on Jan. 3 to learn how she will use her powers under Bill 115.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn as Phil Hahn. This version has been corrected.