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Teachers’ strike vs. Truckers’ convoy – have we lost the will to fight unpopular government?

Photo: Twitter

by Rita Smith

The article originally appeared on True North

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Rita Smith

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) may be mis-reading the mood of the public and the press in planning for an illegal strike on November 4th. 

CUPE represents school custodians, administrative staff and educational assistants in Ontario. 

While in years past these workers might have hoped for automatic support from parents, the public and the mainstream media, they may find out that 2022 is a tough time to ask for sympathy – or money. 

As someone who survived the illegal Ontario teachers’ strike of 1997 working as the Education Minister’s communications director, I’ve been comparing it to the 2022 truckers’ protest to see how radically attitudes have changed.

In 1997, when Ontario teachers’ unions called a wildcat strike against the Mike Harris government over changes proposed in Bill 160, protesting teachers clearly occupied the moral high ground in the mind of the mainstream media. Harris was vilified and demonized to a degree almost unfathomable now. 

In 2022, protesting truckers are being vilified and demonized by the very mainstream media that once supported the illegally striking teachers. During the truckers’ protests, the moral high ground was very much claimed by Justin Trudeau and downtown Ottawa residents; even Doug Ford was onside with Trudeau. 

This cartoon by Patrick Corrigan ran in the Toronto Star at the height of Harris hatred. “Mom,” my 13 year old son complained to me that year. “The Toronto Star cartoon draws Mike Harris’ nose to look like a penis, on purpose!” Image: Toronto Star

Teachers were protesting a standardized curriculum, testing and equalized funding (all of which were very popular with parents) and the reduction in their paid preparation time. 

In winter 2022, the truckers wanted the protection of Charter rights and freedoms for every Canadian. It should have been an easy sell.

In 1997, one outraged teacher camped out in the lobby of the Education Minister’s office for a week. (Later, he proudly announced that he peed in all the plants during his “protest.”) 

Police decided it was better to let him stay and make his point than to physically drag him out. Compare this kid-glove treatment to the protester trampled by a police horse in Ottawa. 

Ironically, even as I write this, the Public Order Emergencies Commission is holding long, detailed daily hearings, dissecting the minutiae of daily discussions around the police and government response to the truckers’ Freedom Convoy. 

The truckers’ protest mostly impacted the approximately 6,000 residents of downtown ImaOttawa. Compare that to a province-wide illegal teachers’ strike which impacted 2 million families and sent frantic parents scrambling for childcare.

As a parent, I didn’t enjoy the teachers’ strike at the time, but I did respect their right to peaceful protest, as did the Mike Harris government. 

I’m surprised that Ontarians who once stridently defended the near-sacred right of citizens to protest government are now apparently willing to stand back and let Doug Ford’s government pre-emptively stomp out a strike.

Where opposition politicians once stood alongside protestors to vehemently criticize government, Conservatives and Liberals stood “should to shoulder,” on the convoy issue. 

Even the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has said they will not respect CUPE’s picket line, stating in an email “ETFO members are not in a legal strike position. They will be attending to their regular work duties.” 

If CUPE is hoping the general population and the media will sympathize with their walkout, they are not reading the room. After two years of COVID lockdowns and worried about a bleak economic outlook, parents aren’t in the mood for wildcats or strikes. 

It’s almost as though Ontario is a completely different place now from what it was a quarter-century ago. Maybe it is.

Rita Smith is the publisher of Road Warrior News/Taxi News.