Hundreds of workers and their supporters donned pink for a rally at Halifax’s Grand Parade on Thursday.
They filled the square outside City Hall to call for better wages for school support staff and to get all students back into the classroom.
The name “Lucy” rang out through the crowd as several speakers took to the stage to put more pressure on the government to get workers back to work.
Lucy is a Grade 5 student who still can’t go to class as 1,800 Educational Program Assistants (EPAs), support workers, and pre-primary teachers are off the job.
Her mom Heather Langley spoke at the rally and called for the province to do better.
“I am calling on you today to get back to the bargaining table to offer these incredible, hard-working support staff a living wage,” Langley called out.
“If you don’t value the people who have made a career out of supporting the marginalized children in this province, then you don’t value our children.”
Chris Melanson, the president of CUPE Local 5047, told the crowd that members want the province to come back to the table. The workers took to the picket lines over a week ago to call for better wages. Their union says Thursday’s rally sends a solid message to Premier Tim Houston.
“People miss us in our schools,” says Melanson. “If they think we shouldn’t be back there and shouldn’t be paid our worth, the people behind us are telling the stories of why we should be.”
He’s also critical of Houston’s comments earlier this week that he does not sit at the negotiations table.
“He knows the people who are having conversations at the bargaining table,” says Melanson. “He knows exactly what is going on. For him to say he’s not sure of the issues because he’s not at the table, well, here’s his opportunity to sit with us and to talk about it.”
Elementary school student Journey Leache says it’s not fair that she cannot attend school because she requires extra support.
“If I can’t be at school, I can’t learn, I can’t be with friends, I can’t be with students, and I can’t interact,” says Leach.
She wants all kids to be treated equally.
“It’s human rights and people are taking away rights,” says the Grade 6 student. “I feel like it’s unnecessary to impact just a few students and not all of them.”
Leach is also worried she won’t get to say goodbye to her teacher before the end of the school year as she heads off to junior high in September.
“We’re here to support all the EPAs and the amazing support staff and help support them fighting for their rights,” adds parent Jessica Power.
Many speakers took to the stage to join the call on the province to deliver a fair wage including Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender, Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Zach Churchill, and Nova Scotia Teachers Union President Ryan Lutes.
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“Our schools do not run without you,” Lutes said in his speech. “Our kids know it. Kids like Lucy know it. Our parents know it. Teachers damn well know it every single day. We only need one person to know it now.”
“Tim Houston!” shouted the crowd.
The premier was faced with questions from the media during an announcement in Porters Lake. Houston claimed the government worked hard to reach an agreement and met the union’s demands, but then a fourth ask was made.
“We negotiated those three things and now we have to get to a place where students are in school,” says Houston. “We have to remember the impact on students and families and the members themselves. I hope the CUPE leadership is being honest and forthright with their members about what’s happening.”
Houston says the seven other regions in the province, as well as the French school board, accepted the deal.
“One local wants to undo the work that has been done on wage parity,” says Houston. “That’s not appropriate. It’s disappointing.”
He adds the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) also tried to keep all kids in school. He says the HRCE reached out to CUPE leadership and asked if they could work together to make sure the students were supported.
“The leadership refused to cooperate in that process,” says Houston.
The Liberals are calling for a human rights investigation into the impact the strike is having on young children and students with vulnerable needs.
“These children — our four-year-olds, those who need special assistance — have a right by law to be in our schools and access education just like everybody else,” says Churchill.