As Nova Scotia tries to negotiate a new collective contract with province’s teachers, it needs to win a PR battle painting its demands as reasonable and the teachers’ as unfair. But as these power games continue, the province will have to reckon with an increasingly vocal contingent: the students themselves.
Hundreds of people, many of them high schoolers, rallied at the Nova Scotia Legislature Monday morning after students were locked out of their schools by the province’s Liberal government. It’s the latest protest planned by students after a province-wide walkout on Friday and a smaller walkout from students and parents in Cape Breton on December 1.
Talks between the province and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, which represents the 9,300 public school teachers who are at the bargaining table for a new contract, broke down last Friday, November 25. That led the union to announce that it would start working-to-rule on Monday, December 5th.
Working-to-rule generally involves following a contract to the letter, but in a surprise press conference on Saturday morning, education minister Karen Casey announced that the work-to-rule had gone too far and “infringed on what teachers are expected to do.”
— John Hutton (@JD_Hutton) December 3, 2016
Casey said that working to rule would create an unsafe environment and until the province could guarantee students’ safety, they could no longer attend school.
But those students aren’t letting themselves be chess pieces in someone else’s power game. Instead, they’ve been wielding what power they can cobble together to collectively say fuck this.
“We see every single day all the hard work they put into teaching,” Kenzi Donnelly, one of the organizers who got the first walkout started at Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth, said to the Examiner in a Facebook message. Donnelly started a Facebook group called Students For Teachers, and was one of two students at her school who planned the Friday walkout. That plan escalated with high schoolers from at least 40 schools walking out that afternoon.
Donnelly said students, like teachers, want to see smaller class sizes and that she wanted both sides to go back to the bargaining table. “We wanted to speak out and let Nova Scotians know that [teachers’] concerns … are valid.”
At Citadel High in downtown Halifax on Friday, about 300 students marched out of school and toward the provincial legislature with chants like “Let teachers teach,” and “Lying and tricks will not divide, students and teachers side by side.”
Citadel High’s student council tech executive Sean Cody, 16, says he organized much of his school’s protest that day, bringing other student councillors on board and talking to teens in their classes. He said at first students were divided over whether to walk out — some students thought the teachers were asking for too much. ”But that’s how you negotiate,” he says. “I told them…’do you want to remember these years as a time that you sat around and did nothing, or fixed something?’”
Nova Scotia students aren’t alone in using protest to get attention, particularly in recent memory. Philadelphia students have been protesting a lack of resources in their classrooms for years; girls in schools who protest against dress codes they consider sexist have received widespread media attention; and social movements, like Black Lives Matter or the backlash against Trump’s election, have repeatedly inspired students to walk out of their classes in solidarity.
Angus Johnston is a historian of student activism who teaches at Hostos Community College in New York. He says high school organizers don’t always get taken as seriously as their university activist counterparts — and that’s a mistake.
“High school students are certainly taking a much larger risk if they walk out for classes or engage in mass demonstrations than college students are,” he says. Universities barely even track attendance and their students don’t risk much more than a lower grade. High schoolers, on the other hand, can risk detention or suspension for skipping school — plus, if their parents don’t share their politics, they could get in trouble at home. “It’s easy to dismiss high school organizing, but in many cases it definitely takes a lot of bravery to engage in these kinds of mass protests.”
Johnston says that while student protest is on the rise more generally, protests for teachers is one of the most common reasons for it. “Students have very little institutional power,” he says. “Public demonstration is really one of the very short-lived ways students can make their feelings known when they believe their teachers are being mistreated…it’s actually pretty common for students to engage in walkouts for that reason because students have a very strong commitment to teachers they like and respect.”
The students have received support from the provincial NDP and Progressive Conservatives — no doubt eager for a chance to point the finger at the governing Liberals. But the support isn’t unanimous. When she heard of plans for the Friday walkout, Casey told CTV the news was “very disappointing,” adding that “students should be in their class” and so should their teachers. Ironically, Casey would on Saturday announce that students would be forbidden from attending classes.
The decision may well backfire. Closing the schools gave students like Hope Salmonson, 17, nowhere to go but the legislature. Salmonson, of Eastern Shore District High School, woke up at 5:30 this morning to get downtown so she could protest losing her beloved arts programs — speaking to the crowd about thespians who memorized lines they can no longer rehearse and band kids with instruments they can’t use.
“My family put a lot of money down on my own tuba we just bought…that’s $7,000 wasted,” she said to the Examiner, who hopes to get into Acadia University for music. “I still need to prepare for an audition. I can’t do that now.”