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The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation is taking the final legal step to clear the way for strikes in the seven hand-picked regions, with two boards already a week into a mandatory 17-day countdown, union president Paul Elliott said.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Seven Ontario school boards are on notice that their high-school teachers could strike within weeks.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation is taking the final legal step to clear the way for strikes in the seven hand-picked regions, with two boards already a week into a mandatory 17-day countdown, union president Paul Elliott said.

Boards in Halton and Lakehead (Thunder Bay) districts have a possible strike date of around April 17 if negotiations do not improve, according to paperwork from the Ministry of Labour. Mr. Elliott said papers are pending for the remaining five boards: Peel, Durham, Ottawa-Carleton, Rainbow (Sudbury) and Waterloo.

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The strikes would be a "full withdrawal of services," including all classroom time, he said.

Secondary school teachers' contracts expired last August. Under provincial law passed last spring, they have been obligated to bargain centrally on some big items, and board-by-board on others.

The board-level talks are underway, but in a speech last month to union members, Mr. Elliott complained that the province hadn't yet started central bargaining because of "unnecessary delays" and hadn't set a first central bargaining date for support workers until Wednesday, according to a transcript of the event. He also attacked the Liberal government for what he called a "failed dogma of austerity" and said the union won't accept wage freezes.

The seven possible strike districts were chosen in a special union assembly last May, he said, as part of a plan that would see non-striking teachers "take care" of their striking colleagues. Calling the affected districts "the magnificent seven," he asked their teachers to rise and thanked them in front of the crowd.

In a statement, the Ministry of Education said it remains committed to achieving a settlement at the central bargaining table.

The director of Halton District School Board said board-level bargaining in his district began recently and lasted for only one or two sessions before the union began taking the legal steps necessary to strike. Union negotiators requested a conciliator, and when the conciliator arrived, they immediately asked him or her to file a "no board report" to the Ministry of Labour to say officially there was no progress, director David Euale said.

Union members held strike votes last fall. Now, a "no board report" issued at any school board will begin the 17-day countdown.

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The Halton talks weren't at a dead end, and they are continuing, with another date set this week, Mr. Euale said.

"They were progressing, they went through ground rules, they set dates for future meetings," he said.

He said the seven targeted boards, including Halton, may have been picked as "lighthouse boards" because relations aren't as strained in them. "I'm hoping that they have picked us because of our excellent past relationship," he said. "I don't like the possibility of being early into the sanction game, but that's their choice, and we're going to do our best to get a settlement."

The union would have to give the board one week's notice before striking, he said. The board has about 17,300 high-school students.

Graduating students would be especially affected by a spring strike, since universities are waiting for their final marks, said Michael Barrett, chair of Durham District School Board and president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association.

"Those students in the seven boards are going to be at a disadvantage," he said.

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"I would also say universities would understand labour strife and that that would be taken into consideration when applications have been reviewed."

Last year, when teachers in British Columbia went on strike at the end of the school year, they were ordered to submit final marks for their Grade 12 students.

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