TORONTO – The Ontario legislature resumes Tuesday after a winter break that’s been consumed by an escalating conflict with the province’s public school teachers.
Contract talks between the Progressive Conservative government and the four major teachers’ unions have largely stalled, and a co-ordinated provincewide strike set for Friday will see about two million students out of class.
House Leader Paul Calandra acknowledged the labour dispute will likely dominate the start of the new legislative session, but said the government has no immediate plans to introduce back-to-work legislation.
“Look, I’m the house leader and I have nothing on my table to that effect,” he said. “The education minister hasn’t advised me that that needs to happen right now. I’m still confident … we can come to an agreement.”
The unions have said they are fighting back against government contract demands that increase class sizes and implement mandatory e-learning.
The government maintains the key issue in the contract talks is compensation, with the unions asking for a cost of living pay increase closer to two per cent, while the province is offering only one per cent.
The conflict comes as the Tories prepare their second spring budget and hope to avoid the controversial rollout that plagued their first spending package last year. That document enraged a variety of groups across the province in the weeks after it was introduced as deep spending cuts were revealed.
Finance Minister Rod Phillips said this time the government will take a “balanced approach” to the budget, which is expected in March.
“We’ve listened very closely to what Ontarians are saying,” he said. “We do know what those priorities are … dealing with affordability, making priority investments in services, and making sure that we balance the budget.”
Meanwhile, the government is also likely to face questions about the controversial cancellation of Hamilton’s light-rail line, a move it made during the winter break. It could also face increased pressure to introduce its overdue strategy to curb increasing rates of youth vaping.
The parents of children with autism are also expected to return to the legislature Tuesday to push the government for long-promised support. The Ontario Autism Coalition says it is planning a protest on the lawn as the new session begins.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said her party will return to the new session to fight the government’s cuts to the education system and press for more investment in health care. She is concerned the spring budget could contain further cuts to services.
“(The government) tried to sell their last budget as something that it wasn’t,” she said. “I don’t trust them at all. I don’t think they have the best of intentions for the vast majority of people in this province.”
But the official Opposition will also try to present solutions to Ontario’s most pressing problems during the session, she said, with an NDP strategy to fight climate change expected in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s Liberals will select a new leader next month, possibly changing the dynamic in Ontario politics.
Former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca is the front-runner in the race and according to data released by the party last week, appears poised to win the job on a first ballot vote at the party’s convention on Mar. 7.