By Jessica Lovell
Carrying the very same signs raised in protest by teachers just days before, around 100 students marched their way to local MPP Liz Sandals’ office Monday to demonstrate their opposition to Bill 115.
“This bill is about us partly,” said Jeff Chong, a Guelph Collegiate student who helped to organize the protest along with fellow student Ethan Bersche.
“It’s about our education,” said Chong, noting students who had come out were trying to take the initiative to have a say when it comes to their education.
The demonstration against the bill, which is also known as the “Putting Students First Act,” was spurred by the decision of some high school teachers to withdraw from extracurricular activities as a form of political protest.
Though it is not yet clear exactly how many clubs have been affected, on the sports front GCVI students seem to have been the hardest hit, losing five of their District 10 sports teams.
The student protesters, the vast majority of whom were from GCVI, carried the same Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario signs that were carried by local elementary teachers who picketed Sandals’ office on Friday. But they also carried homemade signs that read “Not our sports.”
They chose to come out on Monday afternoon, in spite of the fact that Sandals was not in her office, because that was the day teachers were set to pull out of running sports teams and clubs, said Chong.
They chose 1:15 p.m. for its obvious symbolism. A walkout at 1:15 p.m. is appropriate to protest a bill numbered 115, explained Chong.
He emphasized that the protest wasn’t just an excuse to skip class. “We went to school (for the first half of the day) to show that we actually care about education.”
A lack of organized extracurricular activities will impact students’ ability to get into the post-secondary programs of their choice or to secure scholarships, said Chong.
But he did not blame teachers for taking those activities away from students.
“The reason the teachers have taken away our extracurriculars is that they have no bargaining (power),” Chong said.
Bill 115 gives the province the power to impose contracts if local school boards cannot reach contract agreements by a Dec. 31 deadline. The bill also sets out the parameters for acceptable contracts, including wage freezes and sick-day cutbacks. It also restricts teachers’ right to strike.
Though a contract for local public high school teachers has been ratified locally, the teachers were asked by their union to decide individually whether they wanted to continue to participate in voluntary extracurriculars.
“We got caught as collateral (damage), because the government took away the teachers’ collective bargaining rights,” said Chong.
A small handful of College Heights students on hand at the event also seemed to be siding with their teachers.
“They work hard for their benefits,” said Jonny Hunter. “They stay in at break and help us,” he said noting an example of how teachers go beyond what is technically required for their job.
Of one teacher he said, “I wouldn’t call him a teacher, I would call him a friend.”
By attacking the teachers’ unions, the government is “doing more than going after the teacher,” Hunter said, alluding to the implications Bill 115 might have on his own potential future labour disputes should he join a unionized workforce.
“If this was happening to me, I’d want people standing up for me, too,” said Hunter.
But he also seemed somewhat conflicted, lamenting the loss of school sports and saying of both the teachers and the government, “I don’t see why they have to take it out on us.”