A decision that promises to shape the course of Ontario's growing labour strife with teachers will be waiting on Education Minister Laurel Broten's desk Monday morning, in the form of five tentative deals signed this weekend.
The agreements give a glimmer of hope for labour peace, but they must still be approved by Ms. Broten, who insists that they be "substantively identical" to terms agreed with the English Catholic teachers' union in July. Details of the deals were not released.
Yet even as the settlements raise hope that more deals could follow, teachers at 172 schools in York Region will be the first elementary-school instructors in the province to begin strike action Monday, widening the protest against the Ontario government.
The nearly 5,000 elementary teachers, along with high-school teachers at 11 other Ontario boards, are the latest union locals to enter a legal strike position. They join high-school teachers from 20 other boards who stopped administrative and supervisory duties last week, raising concerns about safety in schools.
The most recent sign of progress came Sunday night, when the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation inked a tentative agreement early Monday morning with the District School Board of Niagara and the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Deals were reached over the weekend with Thames Valley District School Board,York Region District School Board and Upper Grand District School Board.
News of the tentative agreements was the first positive development in weeks and comes just six weeks before a Dec. 31 deadline set by the province for teachers to reach agreements with local school boards. The teachers are angry over the province's Bill 115, which passed in September and restricts teachers' ability to strike.
Some board officials said Sunday they are optimistic, if cautious, that the agreements reached this weekend could be a road map for further deals. "The first deals are often templates for building other deals and on those grounds it's certainly a sign of hope," said Geoff Williams, director of labour relations for the Ontario Public School Boards' Association.
But the OSSTF's president, Ken Coran, declined comment on the deals. "We await the minister's decisions as to whether these agreements meet the parameters the government outlined," the OSSTF said in a statement.
Ms. Broten's office confirmed it will review the tentative deals as quickly as possible once it receives them Monday morning, hoping to give an answer this week.
"I am very pleased that tentative agreements have been reached between OSSTF locals and two local school boards," Ms. Broten said in a statement, before the third agreement was announced late Sunday. "[They] demonstrate that, if they meet the substantively identical test, there is time for negotiating at the local level to reach agreements instead of resorting to strike action."
Teachers will not walk off the job in their strike action, but will limit their duties to exclude administrative tasks. If the situation drags on, the Upper Canada District School Board may look at cancelling the Grade 9 EQAO math test, said UCDSB chairman Greg Pietersma. High-school teachers also won't supervise students outside classrooms – in cafeterias, libraries or hallways – leaving some school officials fearing for student safety. Boards are asking clerical staff to help out, and some are giving administrators the authority to shutter schools if the situation gets worse.
"Initially we don't have the concern that student safety will be at risk," said Norm Blaseg, director of education for the Rainbow District School Board in Sudbury. "How long we can maintain that remains to be seen."
Teachers at two more elementary boards will be in legal strike position later this week, as will all 76,000 elementary teachers across the province 2 1/2 weeks from now. The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) will mandate that teachers arrive no more than 30 minutes before school and leave no later than half an hour after dismissing classes on each Monday and Tuesday, but president Sam Hammond said "the withdrawal of administrative tasks" should not make parents worried about "safety of students or any kind of disruption in the learning environment."
York Region's elementary teachers will still supervise their 70,000 students and hold parent-teacher meetings, but will drop an array of administrative duties, most of which parents aren't expected to notice. York Region ETFO president David Clegg promised to "attempt to make the learning environment continue," but said strike action could escalate to affect first-term report cards.
"I've also been very clear that if the McGuinty government intervenes in any way in our right to this job action, then all bets are off in terms of what might happen after that," Mr. Clegg said.
In her statement, Ms. Broten said Bill 115 contains "tools that allow us to address specific strike actions and we will fully explore those options."
Separate talks the government held with the OSSTF and ETFO broke off last week and the government, facing a $14.8-billion deficit, maintains that a wage freeze and cuts to teachers' sick days are necessary to keep programs such as full-day kindergarten and caps on primary school class sizes. With a Dec. 31 deadline for locally bargained agreements looming, Ms. Broten's rulings on the tentative deals carry high stakes.
"If there is a litmus test, these two boards will have provided it," Mr. Blaseg said. "Until that's been tested and unless [Ms. Broten has] okayed it, we're not quite sure what kind of latitude we'll have."
With reports from Caroline Alphonso and Kate Hammer