What Mike Harris did to Ontario: Day -6
When I first read the Glaze report, after being on holiday for a month, my 2 first impressions were 1. It’s just what Mike Harris did in Ontario! and 2. She didn’t consult any teachers! It was a bit of a shock, but it was even worse when I heard that the government was planning to accept all the most draconian recommendations right away – with no more discussion.
So I remembered a piece I had researched and written for my book about 4 years ago about what did happen in Ontario (it was cut from the final version), and thought it would be appropriate to publish it here, just to give a little perspective.
Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution
It was a crisp, sunny Saturday in late October of 1997, when, happening to be in Toronto for the weekend, I joined my brother and sister-in-law (both teachers) at Queen’s Park for one of the biggest demonstrations I had ever attended. The teachers surrounding me were mad as hell at the Ontario government for their proposed new Bill 160, which among other things, would take away their right to strike.
It had all started in the early 90’s when the government was under increased criticism for the perceived lack of global competitiveness of the Ontario education system. Mike Harris’s new majority government gained power in 1995 on promises of a “Common Sense Revolution” – less spending, lower taxes and a reduction of the deficit. A new centrally mandated curriculum had been produced, and one of the first things the Harris government did (after reducing the education budget by $400 million) was to implement Bill 160, “The Education Quality Improvement Act”. Bill 160 took away teachers’ hard won right to strike, removed principals and vice-principals from the unions, increased the length of the school year, removed limitations for class size, and allowed the use of untrained teachers in the class rooms. It also created EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) and implemented standardized testing for grades 3, 6,9 and 12.
The unions tried to negotiate with the government to make changes to Bill 160, after it was passed, to no avail. The demonstration I attended was part of the protests against the bill and shortly after, teachers walked out for 2 weeks. The relentless negative publicity about this “illegal” strike (even though the bill had not yet been implemented) was damaging for the teachers, and the lack of unity among their many unions was apparent when 3 of them went back to work, without having any of their demands met. The remaining unions had little choice but to follow.
An Ontario teacher friend reminisces about her early years, pre-“Common Sense Revolution”, “They remain my most memorable years of teaching – theme based, whole language, much use of the arts to teach information and concepts, and most importantly, time to learn who these young people were and what mattered to them. We covered what they were ready to learn and were most interested in (and passionate about!) Now, I feel if I were to revert to that style of teaching, I wouldn’t get the necessary material covered, I wouldn’t have sufficient proof to support my evaluation, and I wouldn’t be able to complete the report card with integrity.”
This period marked Canada’s GERM moment; fortunately Mike Harris was gone before it could really take hold as it did in Britain and the USA. But some of the anti-teacher, anti-union sentiment that floats around today can be blamed on the government propaganda around that strike. And it is interesting that the two people with whom I attended the demonstration have both taken early retirement, wearied after years of fighting against the standardization of education ushered in by the Harris’ era.
A couple of thoughts: thankfully, Nova Scotia has only one teachers union, so they have one strong, united voice.
I have 2 granddaughters attending public schools in Toronto. Although I haven’t been focussing much on what is happening there recently, I know that the first few years of the eldest child’s schooling were constantly interrupted by work-to-rule strikes. I know that she did not write the Gr. 3 EQAO tests 2 years ago because the teachers were protesting them, and that was fine by me. Volunteering in their classrooms, and talking to their teachers over the years has given me the impression that teachers are none too happy. And of course, it annoys me that when you look up their school (in a nice diverse neighbourhood) the first thing it tells you is their rankings on the EQAO tests!
So I don’t have any doubts that the government is trying to make us into a little Ontario, perhaps in the hopes that we’ll shoot to the top of the Canadian rankings. A very sad ambition, and it will have negative effects for students.