1. The McNeil government’s deceitful, ham-fisted, and mean-spirited attack on teachers
I almost felt sorry for cabinet minister Michel Samson yesterday.
As with the rest of his government, events had overtaken him. He stood before a room full of reporters who were repeatedly calling him out on his contradictions and his uninformed spin. “You say you’re speaking with the union,” said a reporter, “but the entire union executive is here in the building, and they’re saying they’re not talking to anyone.” Samson blanked, then continued reading his statement. Then another reporter asked basically the same question, with Samson again re-reading the statement. And again. And again.
It was clear that Samson didn’t know what his government was up to, and he was as perplexed as everyone else. Not knowing what to do, he stood there for maybe 20 seconds, deer-in-the-headlights-like. Then, just as the Mack truck of political reality was about to make roadkill out of him, he fled the room and we reporters all watched his white bushy tail disappear off into the Province House weeds.
There was a lot of fleeing yesterday. Premier Stephen McNeil was nowhere to be found — both he and Education Minister Karen Casey failed to show at the very emergency sitting of the legislature they themselves had called. And then — after a vote to recess the session after doing no work whatsoever — the rest of the Liberal legislators fled the chamber, refusing to speak to reporters.
How’d we get to this point?
We began with a labour dispute with the teachers union; labour disputes typically involve a lot of back-and-forth and a lot of political grandstanding, but usually in the end they’re resolved with some backdoor compromises and life goes on.
But McNeil has made breaking the public employee unions the cornerstone of his political agenda: he has drawn a line in the sand and will deny all unionized public employees any increase in salary, even to keep up with inflation.
Besides simple wage concerns, teachers have a wide-ranging collection of other issues they wanted addressed in contract negotiations, and so rejected two proposed deals. Their announcement that a work-to-rule job action would start on Monday was McNeil’s casus belli; no one was going push him around, dammit.
McNeil’s response to the work-to-rule action reveals a petty man with a fragile ego and not much in the way of smarts.
His response to a labour dispute with teachers was to lash out — not at teachers, but rather at students and parents. Casey called a press conference Saturday morning and announced that schools would be closed to students, but teachers would have to arrive for work as usual. Her reasoning? If teachers worked to the letter of their contracts, students’ safety was at risk.
This was a tremendous strategic mistake. Casey was admitting that the teachers were right — their “extra” but uncompensated work was essential to the schools and student safety. Moreover, students and parents, who had been watching cautiously and pensively but mostly quietly from the sidelines, were suddenly being directly attacked. It was like the German army overrunning Belgium on its way to Paris, the people of Belgium becoming the hapless victims of someone else’s war. Why was McNeil suddenly attacking students and their families?
A few hours later, McNeil called the legislature into session on Monday in order to approve Bill 75, the “Teachers’ Professional Agreement (2016) Act,” which would force a contract on teachers. Actually enacting the legislation, however, would take at least five days, meaning schools would be shut to students for a week.
And so MLAs made their way to Province House. Andrew Younger was in Asia doing who-knows-what, but had to fly on his own dime on an emergency flight back to Halifax. The rural MLAs were more fortunate — their mileage and per diems and overnight expenses would be covered by the taxpayer.
Early Monday morning, Casey called a press conference for 9:30am, where she was to present reporters with the text of Bill 75 and respond to questions.
Meanwhile, however, all hell had broken out. Students and parents were having none of it. They fought back. Demonstrations were planned. Social media lit up. In all my years of reporting in Halifax, I’ve never seen public outrage on anything like this scale — it was, in Gary Burrill’s words, a “public fury.”
And that fury was directed at Liberal MLAs, who for 48 hours were barraged non-stop with phone calls and email from constituents pissed off that they had been placed in the middle of the government’s battle with a union. By Monday morning, Liberal backbenchers were breaking ranks: no one went on the record, but it was clear that more than a few would vote against Bill 75.
This sent panic through McNeil’s inner circle. They needed a way to back off and save face. And so Casey didn’t show at the press conference she had called, but instead sent Samson in her stead, and we got the deer-in-the-headlights performance.
For the rest of the day, the McNeil government attempted to deceive its way out of the crisis. They said they were negotiating with teachers, but weren’t. They said they had resolved the safety concerns with the union, but the union had made no changes in policy.
The legislature was called in to immediately take a vote on going into recess. All Liberal MLAs voted yes, all opposition MLAs voted no. McNeil and Casey weren’t present, but the Liberals have a solid majority so the vote carried. “Cowards!” yelled Lenore Zann. The Liberals fled the chamber, heads down, avoiding reporters’ questions.
Mid-afternoon, Casey announced that Bill 75 would not immediately proceed, but might at some later point.
And so here we are. No one knows what happens now.
One thing is clear, however: McNeil’s deceitful, ham-fisted, and mean-spirited attack on teachers was an utter failure.
2. Examiner coverage of the the contract dispute
Yesterday, the Examiner published five articles related to the contract dispute.
First, Stephen Kimber wrote about “How the government chose to build two new schools in the ‘right’ place in the right pre-election time” — that is, in McNeil’s and Casey’s districts.
Then, I devoted all of yesterday’s Morning File to the issue.
Yesterday morning, I went to Province House and reported on events as they unfolded.
Also, reporter Katie Toth wrote two articles related to the issue: “Lawyer: McNeil’s bid to force a contract on teachers sits on shaky legal ground,” and “Student Power: student demonstrations shouldn’t be ignored, says historian.”
The articles I wrote are free, but the other articles are behind the Examiner’s paywall and so available only to paid subscribers. Click here to purchase a subscription.
3. Canadian Martyrs’ Church
“St. Thomas Aquinas-Canadian Martyrs has sold a former church site to Saint Mary’s University in Halifax but another interested buyer may not be ready to walk away,” reports Pam Berman for the CBC:
The site is expected to change hands next spring but Ashcroft Homes still thinks its sales agreement should be valid.
That deal fell through at the end of October — and the church parish put the property back on the market.
The Ottawa-based company wanted to build two highrise towers for student residences. The proposal was turned down by Halifax Regional Municipality, and so Ashcroft Homes appealed to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.
“Ashcroft remains ready and willing to close the original agreement of purchase and sale and intend to take legal action to enforce its right to do so,” [Ashcroft’s lawyer, Nancy Rubin,] said in the letter.
4. Cyclist struck
Halifax Regional Police responded to a vehicle/cyclist collision Friday morning in Halifax.
At approximately 8 a.m., police responded to the intersection of Bell Road and Summer Street in relation to a vehicle/cyclist collision. A 29-year-old woman was reported to have been struck while cycling east on Bell Road in the marked bike lane by a car that was travelling in the same direction then turning southbound on Summer Street. The cyclist was transported to the QEII Health Center with what were believed to be non-life-threatening injuries.
The 38-year-old female driver was issued a ticket under the Motor Vehicle Act for changing lanes unsafely.
Parker Donham is rightly concerned about what he calls the “ugly underbelly of the teachers’ contract dispute” — a disdain in some quarters for having children with special needs in the classrooms:
Our schools have many educators who welcome all children to their classrooms, and work beautifully with everyone. But there is an ugly underbelly to the teachers’ dispute, a persistent whisper campaign against the inclusion of children with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, attention deficit disorder, and other circumstances that set them apart from so-called normal classmates.
Some teachers want a return to the days when students with special needs were delivered to school in shortbuses and segregated in isolated classrooms with nothing to inspire or challenge them. Out of sight, out of mind, hope, potential, friendship, and love.
That sentiment isn’t limited to teachers. I also hear it from a minority of parents who think that the inclusion policy takes educational opportunity away from their children. I’d argue it does just the opposite: it helps teach kids to see the world as full of a spectrum of people with different abilities and resources, and yet we’re all in this together.
And sure, the inclusion policy costs money. It requires Educational Assistants in the classroom (and other supports) and, like all other aspects of teaching, takes teachers’ time and attention. But these are the money and time resources that an equitable and just society requires for its educational system.
2. David Wheeler
It’s kinda weird that no one much is talking about the suspension of CBU prez David Wheeler. To be honest, I have no idea if this op-ed by Rankin MacSween in the Cape Breton Post frames the issue correctly. I don’t follow the ins and outs of CBU, and I don’t know if Wheeler’s focus on “online education, First Nations partnerships, and international student[s]” makes sense or not.
3. Cranky letter of the day
“Jeers” to the selection of the Grey/Gray Jay as Canada’s national bird? Really?
Does the illustrious editor know that it is a member of the crow family, is found from Alaska to Newfoundland, and the name, Whiskeyjack is a variation on the name of “Wisakedjak”, a trickster and cultural hero in several First Nations’ mythologies?
During childhood camping days, albeit off-Island, we enjoyed their antics. One memorable incident involved two Whiskeyjacks trying vainly to lift a slab of back bacon that my mother had temporarily left on a picnic table. The squawking was incessant and vigorous as they either argued with or instructed each other on how to steal the delicious prize. Sadly for them it was too heavy and an inch or so was about as high as they could manage to lift the morsel, their wings flapping away, until my mother reappeared.
So, you see, Mr. Editor, at least one person on P.E.I. has seen them, and I would imagine that there are other Island residents who have also. Although rare, sightings are on record for P.E.I. Of the four birds you have suggested only one, the Canada goose is not already recognized as a provincial bird.
Canada is a big country . . . impossible to please everyone, I guess.
Kathy Mijatovich, Cornwall
Halifax Regional Council (1pm, City Hall) — here’s the agenda. I’ll be live-blogging the meeting via the Examiner’s Twitter account, @hfxExaminer.
Public Hearing with RC & HEMDCC- Case 19626 (6pm, City Hall) — a joint public hearing of city council and the Harbour East–Marine Drive Community Council on W.M. Fares’ application to build a five-storey, 81-unit apartment building and two two-storey commercial buildings on four acres at 836 and 842 Portland Street in Dartmouth (at the southwest corner of the intersection of Portland Street and Portland Hills Drive). More info here.
Human Resources (10am, Province House) — Laura Lee Langley, who wears about about eight different hats at Province House but will, I think, be appearing today as the clerk of the Executive Council, will be asked about hiring practices. Drink every time the opposition mentions Marilla Stephenson.
Machine Learning (11:30am, Room 143, Goldberg Computer Science Building) — Stjepan Picek, a postdoc at the Computer Security and Industrial Cryptography (COSIC) group at KU Leuven, Belgium, will speak on “Machine Learning and Evolutionary Computation in Cryptography.”
Wheelchair Skills (12:30pm, Room 409, Centre for Clinical Research) — R. Lee Kirby will speak on “Wheelchair Skills Assessment and Training- What in the World is Going On!?”
December 6th Memorial (7pm, Sexton Campus) — Dal Women in Engineering present an event to honour the 14 victims of the Montreal Massacre. Includes a candle bearing ceremony and discussions from current day incidents of violence against women.
National Day of Remembrance & Action on Violence Against Women (12pm, Art Gallery, Loyola Building)
In the harbour
Slow day in the harbour, so not much chance of reenacting the Explosion:
Long day yesterday.