As tensions continue between the provincial government and Ontario education unions, the education minister is being questioned over a post he shared on social media linking a radical protester to rallying teachers.
On Saturday afternoon, Education Minister Stephen Lecce retweeted an image of a protester outside the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party policy convention in Niagara Falls.
Teachers were among throngs of demonstrators at a rally organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour. One protester in the crowd was holding a sign featuring an image of MPP Sam Ossterhoff with the line, “A problem an abortion could have solved.”
The post was originally tweeted by a Toronto Sun columnist who was covering the convention. As of Sunday afternoon, the minister’s post was retweeted hundreds of times and liked over 1,000 times.
The original tweet linked the protester with teachers saying, “The teachers protesting at the Ontario PC policy conference are keeping it classy. This guy, surrounded by Catholic teacher flags, holds up a sign saying MPP Sam Oosterhoff is ‘a problem an abortion could have solved.'”
In his retweet, Lecce wrote, “We raise our children to be civil, decent, and respectful. This language has no place in our democracy. I’m calling on all education union leaders to unequivocally condemn this. Our kids need strong role models.”
After investigating, Global News has uncovered that the protester was not a teacher, and was not associated with an education union.
On social media, Adam Stirr, an animal rights activist wrote, “That was me with that sign. I designed, printed and paid for it myself for $20. I am not a teacher, or associated with any union that was present.”
Stirr is the co-founder of a group called “At War for Animals Niagara” — on their Facebook page the group describes itself as, “Fighting against SPECIESISM and the property status of non-human persons. A more ethical and just world for all persons human and non-human is possible.”
Stirr has been photographed protesting at various events in the Niagara region.
“Where the sign is located, like who it’s with, does not automatically associate it with the people standing around it,” Stirr said in an interview with Global News.
He also apologized to the educators who were protesting around him.
“I’m sorry that … there was this attempt made to dump this on you,” he said, however, Stirr added he does not regret attending the rally or holding up the offensive sign.
The president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) Liz Stuart responded to the posts in a statement to Global News on Sunday.
“This was a large public protest, which any individual or group could attend,” Stuart said.
“The sign was clearly offensive, but so too was the bad-faith attempt by a Toronto Sun columnist and the Minister of Education to pretend that the sign-holder is a Catholic teacher, or that we should somehow be responsible for his actions. It was another futile effort to distract the public’s attention away from the Ford government’s agenda to undermine publicly funded education in Ontario.”
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) Harvey Bischof echoed those remarks.
“Lecce has called on union leaders to condemn the sign and I do,” Bischof said in a statement.
“I also condemn his disgraceful effort to link this sign to educators when no such link exists, as he well knows by now. Once again we see a minister who is tragically out of his depth, playing inflammatory politics rather than focusing on resolving education issues his government created.”
The Ontario Federation of Labour, which organized the rally, said in a statement that while the placard was “distasteful,” they “expect an apology from the government for their misrepresentation of the facts.”
Global News asked the minister’s office why Lecce retweeted the image before verifying if the protester was a teacher or had anything to do with education unions.
“We live in a democracy where individuals have rights, and we respect those rights. However, there is no place in this country for this vile, disturbing, and divisive language that was present at the union rally,” ministry spokesperson Alexandra Adamo said.
“Our youth look to us for moral leadership, and we have a duty to collectively uphold decency and civility in the public discourse. That is why we have called on the education union leaders to swiftly and unequivocally condemn this language that was present at this union rally.”
Toronto Sun columnist Brian Lilley did not respond to a request for comment.