Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is condemning the Ontario government’s intent to use the notwithstanding clause as part of a controversial bill that would impose a contract on provincial education workers.
His comments came Tuesday morning as the Ontario legislature held an early session called by the Ford government to speed up passage of the Keeping Students in Class Act that would impose a contract on education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and prevent them from striking.
CUPE has said it will explore every avenue to fight the bill, but the government said it intends to use the notwithstanding clause to keep the eventual law in force despite any constitutional challenges.
The clause allows the legislature to override portions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.
“Using the notwithstanding clause to suspend workers’ rights is wrong,” said Trudeau, adding collective bargaining negotiations need to happen respectfully despite any difficulty that arises.
“The suspension of peoples’ rights is something that you should only do in the most exceptional circumstances, and I really hope that all politicians call out the overuse of the notwithstanding clause to suspend peoples’ rights and freedoms.”
Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan called the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause a “travesty,” while Federal Justice Minister David Lametti said he is looking at how Ottawa could challenge the province’s use of the notwithstanding clause.
Education minister says clause can reduce challenges to bill
Education Minister Stephen Lecce, speaking with CBC’s Metro Morning on Tuesday, noted there was a “massive difference” between the two sides during negotiations.
“This is not the first option of any government to legislate, but the alternative is to do frankly nothing,” said Lecce.
When asked how this bill differs from legislation passed by the former provincial Liberal government in 2012 that ultimately ended with the province paying more than $100 million in remedies to affected unions, Lecce said the bill was designed with the notwithstanding clause in mind, which can “reduce any litigation or challenges downstream that could create disruption.”
“The point of this government legislation is designed to keep kids in school,” said Lecce.
“And if we’re going to do that, as a lesson learned from the former government, we’re going to do it with all the tools at our disposal to avert a strike and a disruption and any type of problems that could arise in the coming weeks or months.”
In a letter dated Monday, the Ontario Liberals requested the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly look into comments made by Lecce as a breach of parliamentary privilege, citing his presumed passage of the bill on multiple occasions after the bill was introduced.
Education workers to walk off the job Friday
The province’s move comes after CUPE said its 55,000 education worker members, including early childhood educators, custodians and librarians, would walk off the job Friday despite the legislation. It’s not clear if the walkout would last more than one day.
The proposed bill sets out a strike ban with fines of up to $4,000 per employee each day and $500,000 for the union, with the union promising to foot the bill for any such fines.
CUPE said it would be proposing a counter-offer. According to a government source who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the province would be willing to hear out an offer if one is made and the mediator requests a return to the bargaining table. This was first reported by The Toronto Star.
But, the source added, in order to return to the table, the province would expect the strike plan to be quashed.
“We do understand they could have a new offer this afternoon,” the source told CBC Toronto.
Several unions have made statements in solidarity with CUPE, most notably the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), which endorsed Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in the June election.
“Forcibly imposing a contract on workers is not the answer,” Joseph Mancinelli, LiUNA’s international vice-president and regional manager for central and eastern Canada, wrote to Lecce Tuesday.
The government had been offering raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, but Lecce said the new, imposed four-year deal would give 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.
CUPE has said its workers, which make on average $39,000 a year, are generally the lowest paid in schools and it has been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent. More than 96 per cent of CUPE’s education worker members voted in favour of a strike.
Several school boards, including the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), have said they will have to close schools Friday in response.
About 15,000 TDSB employees — roughly a third of the board’s staff — are CUPE employees, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said Tuesday. He said if they walked off the job, it’s not possible to operate schools safely.
Should the job action continue beyond Friday, he said, the board would notify parents and students as soon as possible so that they can make alternate arrangements.
Riaz Ahmed, the father of a first grader and a junior kindergartner in the board, said the planned school closures have complicated his plans for Friday because both he and his wife are working parents.
“We are still planning, and we are still trying to figure out a way,” he said.
Danyaal Raza said he and his partner were still working out childcare plans for his six-year-old, who attends Grade 1 at a TDSB school, as they look to either adjust work schedules or ask grandparents for support.
Raza, a family physician, said the walkout was “no doubt going to cause some short-term disruption and short-term frustration,” but he said he supports the education workers’ right to strike and negotiate a deal.
“I was quite actually shocked to see that not only was that not going to happen, but that the provincial government was using the notwithstanding clause to override that right,” Raza said.