N.S. teachers walk off job, protest imposed contract outside legislature

Published on February 17, 2017

Teachers participate in a one-day, province-wide strike to protest legislation imposing a four-year contract, outside the legislature in Halifax on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's public school teachers walked off the job en masse Friday and staged a noisy protest outside the provincial legislature, where politicians continued a marathon debate on legislation to impose a contract on them.

Hundreds of teachers and their supporters marched around the building in a noisy procession, chanting, clanging bells and waving placards as members of the legislature discussed Bill 75, the disputed government bill many educators say does little to address deteriorating classroom conditions.

Angela Scott, a Halifax high school teacher, said she wanted to join the protest on the planned, one-day strike to send a message to Premier Stephen McNeil and Education Minister Karen Casey.

"We're not happy with the way our schools are being run today and we're not happy with the way students are being treated," she said on a clear, but crisp day. "I came here to try to have a voice because Stephen McNeil and Karen Casey are not listening to us."

Sherry Johnston Sperry, who teaches high school family studies, said teachers are so overburdened and given limited resources that they can't properly instruct students, particularly those with special needs.

Sperry, who has been teaching for 13 years, said in one year she has had up to 15 students with so-called individual program plans that require more attention, and classes with 30 students. She says that means she cannot provide students with the proper attention, even working extra hours.

"I have two young children and I feel I'm either neglecting them or my students," she said. "I struggle with that and it's gotten a lot worse over the last five years."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the Liberal government's handling of teachers' grievances ultimately led to the strike — the first for the province's 9,300 teachers since their union was formed 122 years ago.

"The McNeil government's treatment of the people who teach our children, and who often serve as the backbone and life blood of our communities, is unjustifiable," he said in a statement. 

"Today's historic strike is another cry from teachers that they are drowning."

The Liberal government is expected to continue pushing the bill through the legislature after the law amendments committee heard testimony from teachers and members of the public Thursday.

Teachers described scenes of violence, neglect and crammed classrooms as they spoke out against the bill.

High school teacher Tim MacLeod said the rise in student mental illness issues is overwhelming teachers, while other educators said they can no longer cope with classrooms where students with learning disabilities aren't receiving enough support.

Union president Liette Doucet said teachers have been betrayed by the premier.

"Our members have never faced a more anti-education government, which is why we are taking this stand," Doucet said about the strike. "At a time when badly needed reforms are required to improve our public education system, Stephen McNeil would rather pick fights with unions than fix problems."

McNeil said his government has tried to negotiate an agreement with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union over the past 16 months, but continuing negotiations would only lead to ongoing disruption in the classroom.

The law — which the government is hoping will be passed by Tuesday — will bring an end to the teachers' work-to-rule campaign, which began Dec. 5. The NSTU has told teachers they should only report for work 20 minutes before class starts and leave 20 minutes after the school day ends.

The contract would include creation of a council that will invest $20 million over two years to address classroom conditions, which MacLeod said isn't enough. The four-year contract contains a three per cent salary increase and incorporates many of the elements contained in the first two tentative agreements rejected by union members.

Alison Auld, The Canadian Press