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‘We need to do this.’ On the picket lines with Liz Stuart, head of the Catholic teachers’ union

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On a day of massive strike action, Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Catholic teachers’ union chief Liz Stuart spoke to the Star separately, but jointly share their frustrations.

It was just before dawn on Tuesday, as Liz Stuart zipped up her parka and pulled on her boots, that the enormity of what was coming suddenly hit her.

The head of Ontario’s Catholic teachers’ union had spent several “frustrating” months at the negotiating table trying to hammer out a deal with the province and was about to witness the impact of those failed talks as she joined members on the picket line for the first time.

“It really kind of hit at 5 a.m. as I was getting myself ready, making sure I had my thermals on and making sure I was good to go,” she told the Star Tuesday, when all Catholic schools in Ontario closed, along with elementary and secondary schools in various boards.

“You realize, ‘This is it. We’re going to do this.’ Yeah, there was a moment’s pause. But we’re ready … We need to do this.”

At Chaminade College School — the first picket line the president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association visited — seeing teachers there lifted her spirits and reinforced her resolve.

“They’re in the trenches everyday in the classroom,” said Stuart, who was warmly greeted by teachers, chanting “Cuts Hurt kids” and waving protest signs while drivers passing by honked in support.

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“It’s really good to come out here and connect with them and see them all out here saying, ‘Yes, we need to fight this,’” she said. “Now I really know we’re on the right track.”

It’s a track that has put OECTA, and the province’s other three teachers’ unions — representing public elementary and secondary teachers as well as the French school boards — on a collision course with the province. All the unions have launched work-to-rule campaigns and three scheduled one-day strikes this week involving tens of thousands of teachers.

In Toronto, public elementary teachers went on strike Monday, followed by public high school teachers on Tuesday.

At Chaminade high school, located near Jane Street and Highway 401, strike captain Anthony Perrotta hit the picket line for the first time in his 15-year career and planned to picket in the afternoon with his two children outside their elementary school.

“I feel completely empowered as an active citizen and an advocate for publicly funded education,” said Perrotta, who lives in King-Vaughan riding represented by Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

The unions want to protect full-day kindergarten, to receive a cost-of-living raise of about 2 per cent and are opposed to the province’s plan to boost class sizes and introduce mandatory online courses in high school. The government maintains the sticking point is salary, noting it’s offering a 1 per cent increase yearly, which is in line with recent legislation limiting public sector wage increases.

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During a wide-ranging interview on the biggest day of action for her members since 1997 — teachers province-wide walked off the job then for two weeks despite not being in a legal strike position — Stuart spoke about the last few months, describing them as a “roller coaster.”

While ministers don’t sit in on negotiations, Stuart isn’t sure whether it would even make a difference to have Lecce there.

“We strongly believe that the mandate, ultimately, is going to come from the minister of finance, the treasury board president and the premier — we believe that’s where the stumbling block is,” she said. “We’ve been clearly told that the goal of the government is to find permanent savings in education. And that couldn’t possibly be the goal of the minister of education, who consistently talks about how he’s in it for the kids.”

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Stuart said she last spoke with Lecce in September. “He talked extensively about how much he valued teachers, how much he wants to retain good teachers, about making sure that students have what they need. But nothing he does demonstrates that.”

At another picket — Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School on Sherbourne Street near Wellesley Street East — Ontario’s NDP Leader Andrea Horwath dropped by with muffins and urged the government to “get back to bargaining.”

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Stuart said arriving at the “difficult” decision to proceed with the one-day strike was the toughest moment in recent months. She recalls hitting the picket lines, taking along her two kids in strollers, during the 1997 strike when teachers across Ontario protested the education reforms of Bill 160.

“I remember that sense of anxiety. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I still had a family to feed,” said Stuart. “For any leader, even when you know that you’ve got the support and the mandate of your members, you think long and hard about the fact that 45,000 people (OECTA members) are out on a picket line today … That gives everybody pause.

“It’s about recognizing that people are going to make sacrifices, some more than others. And it’s about recognizing that we’re asking parents, some of whom I know are precariously employed themselves, to make a sacrifice today. And you don’t do any of that lightly.”

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