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Toronto Peel Region secondary school teachers join growing Ontario strike

A woman sits on the picket line in front of Lorne Park Secondary School in Mississauga where high school teachers began strike.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

High-school teachers at Canada's second-largest school board will walk off the job Monday morning, forcing 42,000 students out of class in a region west of Toronto and significantly ratcheting up the pressure on a Liberal government already facing school strikes in two other parts of the province.

Talks broke down late Sunday between the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) and the Peel District School Board, which includes schools in Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon.

When Peel's 4,200 high-school teachers take to the picket line on Monday morning, they will be joining their counterparts in the regions that include Sudbury and Oshawa, where secondary schools have already been shut down for one and two weeks, respectively, because of local labour strife that could soon spread to the rest of the province.

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"We're entering a third week," said Michael Barrett, chair of the Durham District School Board, which includes schools in Oshawa, Ajax, Pickering and Whitby. "Students are getting anxious, parents are getting anxious, families are getting anxious."

The OSSTF has identified four more school boards as targets for possible walkouts, while the union that represents Ontario's public elementary teachers will be in a legal strike position as of May 10. Members of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association gave their bargaining team a strike mandate of more than 94 per cent late last month.

The contracts for all of Ontario's teachers expired Aug. 31, 2014.

Premier Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals have both acknowledged that this will be a difficult round of bargaining, with the Liberal government having told all public-sector workers that wage increases will only be possible if they and their employers manage to find the money within their existing budgets.

The high-school strikes in Peel and elsewhere are also unfolding against the backdrop of a new law passed last year that altered the way Queen's Park and local school boards bargain with their educational workers.

Now all issues involving money – including wages, benefits, class sizes and preparatory time – are hashed out by the Ministry of Education, the school boards' umbrella associations and union leaders at a "central" table, leaving issues like job assessments and working conditions for local talks.

The chairs of the two Ontario school boards already facing high-school strikes say the changes have left them scant room to manoeuvre.

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The OSSTF, meanwhile, has said in the past that negotiations with those boards were sluggish and lacking in respect, prompting them to abandon negotiations.

"It's a new system and we certainly have found it to be rather difficult," said Doreen Dewar, chair of the Rainbow District School Board, which includes 10 high schools in Sudbury, Espanola and Manitoulin Island. "I have seen some of the signs that our teachers are carrying and they refer to items such as class sizes and [prep time.] Both of those things have monetary implications. We have no control over that."

More than 500 high-school teachers walked off the job in Rainbow District on April 27, leaving about 5,000 students without classes.

Durham's 1,550 teachers began their strike a week earlier, on April 20, stranding 21,500 high-school students.

The other boards that the OSSTF has identified as potential strike targets are Halton, Waterloo, Ottawa and Lakehead, which includes Thunder Bay.

Caught in the middle of all this are the students, especially those in Grade 12 who were looking forward to revelling in their final weeks at the top of the high-school heap.

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Proms, sports banquets, award ceremonies and other events will all be in peril if the strikes drag on. Graduating students will also have to contend with how the strikes might affect their applications for postsecondary school and their ability to nab athletic scholarships.

Erindale Secondary School student Eliya Kandha spent Sunday night watching Twitter to see if he had to get up for school the next morning. The 19-year-old is not upset at the idea of an early summer holiday, because he has already graduated. He came back for an extra year to upgrade a few marks and get a politics prerequisite for a college course.

"I'm okay. They told me whatever mark I have for midterm [can be used for my college application] and everything on my midterm looks good," he said. But some of his classmates were counting on these extra months to bring up their grades.

Mr. Kandha says the strike would be hardest on his sister, who is in Grade 12 and was looking forward to her senior prom.

"Prom is a culminating event for when you finish high school, so it's a bit of an issue for her … and some of the kids in my class who are on prom committee. They're very frustrated."

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