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Democracy and Education in Ontario

In a recent statement to the press, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Canada accused the provincial government of making a “deliberate and provocative choice to wipe out the democratic rights of tens of thousands of educators.”

He was referring to the decision by education Minister Laurel Broten to use government legislation to impose contracts on the teachers that not just freeze wages and eliminate sick-day banking, but also take away teachers’ right to strike and protest, thus, in his mind, eliminating democratic freedom.

That has been the gist of the union’s arguments for the past few months, and it is not surprising to see the spotlight shone on it now. The application of democracy in society and organizations is varied and complex. With every situation in which a democratic ideal is invoked there are choices and costs to ponder.

Democracy and the unions

Membership in the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario is a mandatory condition of employment for teachers in Ontario public schools. In this, or any other labour unrest in the province’s education system, there have been many teachers who disagree with their union’s stance and in particular with the ethics of a strike. Unrest on picket lines has been well-documented, and black-listing of teachers by their colleagues is discussed in teachers’ circles. These actions are forced on a group of people who have little choice but to be a part of the enforcing group. They could, of course, opt for a profession other than teaching. Can we consider it a teacher’s democratic choice to incur the cost of relinquishing other rights, such as opting out of job action, in order to join the teaching profession?

While ETFO president Sam Hammond has a point about labour action being a piece of the democratic pie, there is much for this particular organization to do with regards to its own democratic credentials. The fact that membership is mandatory, in this third-party organization, for anyone wishing to teach in a publicly-funded school is a curious artifact of a bygone day.

Democracy and government

Contracts being imposed on teachers in Ontario are acts of law, laws made by democratically elected lawmakers. It’s hard to forget that this particular government was heavily favoured by the same federations now at odds with it. Despite the fact that voter turnout in the last provincial election was dismal – the worst ever – it is the people’s responsibility to elect a government that reflects their values and priorities at the time. How is the application of this kind of elected power the same or different than the power of union executives to order job action?

Democracy for parents and students 

Ontarians do have choice in education. They have one of the four publicly funded choices – English public, English Catholic, French public and French Catholic. The government does not fund, but allows, independent education including faith-based schools. It also allows but does not fund home-schooling. Citizens who choose one of the unfunded choices also bear the cost of that decision, and in this case, it is a financial cost – they must pay for their child’s education by way of lost wages or the payment of tuition fees. They must still pay taxes to support government-funded education over which they cannot possibly have any influence. Nor will they directly derive any benefit. They pay twice, rather than once. So there is a measure of democratic choice in education for parents and students, but it too comes at a personal cost.

Indeed, the question of democracy is illuminated by the teacher unrest in Ontario. The reminder may be that democracy does not mean we get everything we want all the time. Instead we have to make our choices and accept the cost of those choices. If we don’t get what we want, maybe we have to make, and accept the cost of, different choices.

Until then, there’s no sense blaming or complaining.

 

Comments

I wonder whether it exists at all. Though I have to admit that Canada has a good level of education. School children are well prepared to college and they have no troubles with professional case-study writing (read article here). As for college, they understand that the price they pay is high and, therefore, they need to study very well. It is their direct obligation. To be honest, I am from the USA and I don’t know that much about Canadian form of education. But I know that many American students pursue it.

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