More Ontario schools will shutter next week, with the elementary teachers' union planning to issue walkout notices on Saturday at the earliest and threatening that its labour actions could last longer than one day.
The union's defiant tone came after Education Minister Laurel Broten said on Thursday that she would not interfere in rotating one-day walkouts across the province set to begin on Monday, but warned that the government is prepared to block strike action that goes beyond one day.
"I take them at their word and hold them to the promise they are making to Ontario families," Ms. Broten said. "If ETFO [Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario] moves beyond one day, I have the necessary legal documents drafted and ready to end any strike action."
The head of the elementary teachers' union shot back, saying labour action could continue for longer.
"I'm not concerned about what the minister has said in terms of two, three days. Quite frankly, we have the right to strike. If we wanted to strike two days, three days, five days, or continuously, we have that right under the Ontario Labour Relations Act," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. "I've promised no one anything, quite frankly."
Teachers are angry over legislation – Bill 115 – that dictates the terms of their contracts and restricts their ability to strike. About 1,000 teachers at two small boards – the Avon Maitland District School Board in the Stratford area and the District School Board Ontario North East in Timmins – will start one-day walkouts on Monday, the first of the rotating strikes. Teachers have promised to give parents 72 hours notice.
Mr. Hammond declined to indicate which school boards would follow, saying that notice will be given on Saturday if teachers are to walk out three days later.
Elementary teachers are not the only ones angry about Bill 115. High school teachers are escalating their job action by stopping extracurricular activities such as clubs, sports and fundraisers.
The strike action is a blow to Premier Dalton McGuinty, who built his now-tarnished legacy on labour peace in education. Mr. McGuinty had been quietly pushing to block the walkouts by elementary school teachers, but told reporters on Thursday that one-day strikes do not warrant government intervention. "I think it's important that we keep in mind that teachers have a democratic right to strike in the province of Ontario, and we've got to weigh that off against the rights of students and parents to have stability in their schools," Mr. McGuinty said during a photo op in which pre-school children helped him decorate the Christmas tree outside his office at the legislature.
Asked by reporters if it was difficult for him to watch the latest unrest unfold in the province's schools, Mr. McGuinty said: "We're going to get by this. We're going to restore goodwill."
At the end of the photo op, he said to the children: "Do you know what I could use? A hug."
Sources said that the ETFO is planning walkouts in every public school board in the province, reaching two or three districts every day over the two weeks leading up to the Christmas break. Teachers plan to picket schools and head offices at Avon Maitland and Ontario North East on Monday morning.
Ms. Broten said she will allow one-day strikes to occur anywhere in the province as long as the proper notice is provided.
"ETFO's choice to move to strike action is a disappointing development," she told reporters. "It puts students and teachers in the middle of a disagreement this union has with the government."
None of the seven former cabinet ministers competing for Mr. McGuinty's job objected to his decision to permit one-day rolling strikes. But many of the seven candidates said they are deeply concerned about the deterioration in relations between the governing Liberals and teachers.
"I think it's important that a government acknowledge when it makes mistakes," Gerard Kennedy, a former education minister, said at an all-candidates debate at the Canadian Club of Toronto on Thursday.
Eric Hoskins vowed that if he wins the leadership race, he will not "disrespect" teachers and "try to drive a wedge between our students and teachers and families."