TORONTO - Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has personally asked two unions to restore extracurricular activities in public schools, after using a controversial law to force two-year contracts on 126,000 teachers and education workers.
The self-described "education premier" — whose reputation has taken a beating lately — said he received no assurances that the voluntary activities would be restored.
But he reached out to union presidents Sam Hammond and Ken Coran in the hope that they could all find a way to "put what is done behind us" and find a way forward, McGuinty told The Canadian Press.
"I was glad that they heard me out," he said in an interview from Ottawa.
"The calls were very cordial, very respectful. So I'm hopeful that the two executives will allow teachers to do what I believe they, deep down, want to do."
Both the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation say their members have overwhelmingly voted in favour of political protests if the government forced new contracts on them, which may include walkouts. They plan to meet with their executives next week to discuss their next steps.
But Hammond, who leads ETFO, called the government's actions a "disgraceful misuse of power" and warned that it won't be "business as usual" when students return to class on Monday.
Still, McGuinty said he won't make extracurriculars such as coaching sports teams or supervising clubs part of a teacher's job, even though it means they can withdraw them during labour disputes.
"Extracurriculars are a voluntary service provided by teachers out of a sense of both goodwill and a commitment to the best possible educational experience for our students," he said.
"And I just don't believe that you can legislate goodwill."
Bill 115 — which the Liberals used to impose the new collective agreements and then promised to repeal by the end of the month — inflamed tensions with teachers, who staged one-day strikes and cut out extracurricular activities in protest.
It's not clear whether repealing the law will be enough to heal the wound, which has alienated a powerful group that has helped keep the Liberals in power for nine years.
McGuinty said he doesn't regret bringing in the legislation. He called it a "necessary" and "one-time" measure that was needed to deal with the $14.4-billion deficit.
"It's done the job that we needed it do," he said. "But along the way, it's taken on a kind of larger-than-life perspective in the eyes of some of our teachers. And we think we have a responsibility to address that."
McGuinty denied that the move to repeal the law was intended to win back teachers before the next election. But NDP education critic Peter Tabuns said parents, students and teachers are tired of his cynical political games.
"If Dalton McGuinty was truly interested in reaching out to elementary and high school teachers, he should have done it before, not after, he imposed unconstitutional legislation that will bring more turmoil to our schools and lead to expensive court battles," Tabuns said in a statement.
"When there was still time to get a deal and stop this mess, Dalton McGuinty couldn't seem to find a phone. Now he's scrambling to clean up the mess he's made."
McGuinty, who intends to step down once a new leader is chosen at the end of the month, was elected premier promising to restore peace to Ontario schools after several tumultuous years under the Conservatives. Nine years later, he's leaving amid the kind of labour strife he'd tried to avoid.
It wasn't the exit that he'd imagined, but reining in compensation is never easy, he said. It's up to his successor to find a way to work with teachers on how they'll negotiate the next set of contracts, which will "undoubtedly" involve some kind of compensation increase.
"You'd like to leave in a way that's all positive, but life's not like that," McGuinty said. "You've got to deal with the circumstances as you find them."
"It is what it is. I've always tried to do what I think is right under the circumstances as I find them."