SOUTH RIVER – Almaguin Highlands Secondary School students have had enough.
TAKING A STAND.
Hundreds of teens walked out of class on Friday to make a statement on the decision by staff to cut extracurriculars in protest of Bill 115.
But the kids say students are being used as pawns.
“Don’t trample on us. A student’s education is more important than arguing with the government,” said Grade 12 student Erika Kraus. “They should find another way to protest without putting us in the middle.”
While AHSS students planned a walkout at 1:15 p.m. in protest of Bill 115, Kraus and her pal James Deveaux began their vigil in the icy air at 10 a.m.
“If you’re going to protest something, you have to be dedicated,” said Kraus.
By 1:15, the duo was joined by the majority of the student body carrying signs and chanting, while being led out of the school by a trumpeter.
The actions of staff and students were set in motion back in the fall after the Legislature was recalled early to push through Bill 115, also known as the Putting Students First Act, before kids went back to class.
As of Sept. 1, teachers’ contracts would have automatically rolled over leading to wage increases of up to 5.5 per cent, as well as two million more bankable sick days that can be cashed out at retirement. The Act was put in place to intercept that roll over.
Along with a wage freeze, the Act strips teachers of their right to collectively bargain and AHSS teachers have vowed to discontinue participation in extracurricular activities for students as of Dec. 10 in protest.
Kraus and Deveaux said they don’t think it’s fair to deprive student s of their education – both inside and outside of the classroom.
“The students are getting stuck in the middle and that’s not right,” said Kraus. “Some students need extra-curricular activities just to stay out of trouble.”
Kraus also said teachers are boycotting after-school help, which some students require in order to keep up with the class. She said it’s not fair to compromise a student’s right to an education just to make a statement.
Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) District 4 President Glen Hodgson places the blame squarely on Education Minister Laurel Broten.
“We were left with no choice and it’s 100 per cent the fault of the Minister,” he said.
Hodgson said the teachers have until Dec. 31 to negotiate a contract with the school board that fits within the parameters of the Act. He said the union and the school board gave it their best try. But he said the attempt was useless.
“The contract that came out of it wasn’t a good contract,” he said. “We weren’t bargaining freely. We were basically trying to negotiate with a third party who wasn’t in the room.”
Hodgson said the union turned the contract down on Dec. 6, which leaves them in the hands of the Minister, as she has given herself the freedom to install her own contracts for unions unable to negotiate their own by the end of the year.
Hodgson said he doesn’t understand why Premier Dalton McGuinty’s comments on the unfair treatment of teachers during his resignation haven’t affected his Party’s decision-making.
“Their own leader is saying this was not the way to go, so I hope people will start to understand,” he said.
In October, McGuinty was quoted in the Toronto Star saying the forceful way the government installed the Act is, “regrettable, but nothing is beyond repair. I’m convinced we can restore good relations and goodwill with our public-sector partners.”
Hodgson said he is optimistic, as those vying for McGuinty’s job seem to be onside with teachers’ unions.
He said the decision to cut extracurricular activities is a last ditch effort.
“That’s our last piece that we can control,” he said.
Although he said he doesn’t encourage students to skip class, he said he does encourage them to stand up for themselves.
“They did what they felt was right, and I applaud them for that,” he said.
The AHSS student walkout was one of many taking place all over the province in the past week.
Among those who hit the parking lot in Almaguin were members of the yearbook committee, who say they have been hit hard by the boycott.
“This has had a huge impact on yearbook committee because we don’t have a teacher stay late after class with us,” said yearbook editor Myranda St. Onge. “We have to work from home on laptops, for those of us who have laptops. We’re not properly equipped.”
St. Onge said the yearbook will also be tricky to fill this year without any sports or clubs to put on the pages.
“I have 30 pages to fill with sports and no sports to take photos of,” she said.