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Cross-country track meet becomes flashpoint for parents

Toronto’s elementary cross-country meets are some of the most well-attended school sporting events in the province. They usually draw 20,000 participants, but only 11,000 were able to run this year because their teams were coached by teachers who had opted to continue volunteering their time regardless of the labour battle with the province.

FERNANDO MORALES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Seven-year-old Hudson Cummins just had to run.

The reigning city champion in his age group, he finished second in a regional cross-country race Wednesday in Toronto's east end. However, his time didn't count.

Hudson was one of dozens of unregistered pupils who defied a school board ban and competed in the race in the sands along Ashbridges Bay.

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A group of parents, including Hudson's father, Leo Cummins, escorted their children to the meet – a small fraction of the thousands who had been barred from competing because their teachers refused to coach, as their ongoing labour battle continues with the province.

"It's like being the kid on the corner of the playground who's not allowed to play," Mr. Cummins said. "I put him in the race because he needed that sense of accomplishment."

Teachers began cutting back on volunteer services – things like leading clubs, coaching teams and helping children after school – in early September to protest against legislation introduced by the Ontario Liberals that forced them to take a two-year wage freeze, cut their sick days from 20 down to 10, and restricted their right to strike.

Toronto's elementary cross-country meets have become a flashpoint for parental frustration. The races are some of the most well-attended school sporting events in the province. They usually draw 20,000 participants, but only 11,000 were able to run this year because their teams were coached by teachers who had opted to continue volunteering their time regardless of the province's actions.

The numbers of illicit runners could grow as more parents lose patience with labour tactics that put pupils in the middle and choose to step into the fray between teachers and the Ontario government for the first time.

Toronto District School Board officials turned a blind eye to the unregistered runners on Wednesday.

"The fact is it's a public beach," said Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the Toronto District School Board. "We're not about to physically block anyone, so they ran it."

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Three more meets are scheduled for next week and Mr. Bird said parents who show up at those races will be told the same thing – that unregistered children can't compete, but that no one is going to stop them.

After months of staying largely out of it, parents are showing their frustration.

"I don't want my kids involved in all this politics," said Christine Roberts, whose son Luke is in Grade 5 at Kew Beach Junior Public School, one of those blocked from participating. "The teachers and the government need to work out a solution and they need to keep the kids out of it."

"It feels like we're punishing the wrong people," said Connie Harding, whose oldest son attends Adam Beck Junior Public School and was also blocked from competing.

Education Minister Laurel Broten said it was teachers, not the province, who injected children into the dispute.

"I understand that teachers have concerns, but I'm asking teachers to direct those concerns to me, don't take it out on our kids," she said.

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Teachers blame the government.

"I would say that the province put us in this situation," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. "Teachers are making individual decisions and you cannot legislate goodwill."

The work teachers do with students before and after school – homework help, choirs, school plays, coaching cross-country and the like – is done on their own time. Mr. Hammond said he couldn't think of another profession that requires so much personal time be given outside the work day.

In the end, Hudson Cummins couldn't have made his father more proud.

"A lot of children didn't get to run at all, that's the tragedy," Mr. Cummins said.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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