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With Ontario's 126,000 teachers on the verge of an illegal provincewide strike, the provincial government has brought in its key trouble-shooter to defuse the crisis.

Dave Johnson, earlier credited with dousing the fires of confrontation between the government and Ontario's doctors and provincial workers, has been named education minister, replacing John Snobelen, as part of a recent Cabinet reshuffle.

"I'm more hopeful than I was," said Marshall Jarvis, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association.

Phyllis Benedict, president of the Ontario Public School Teachers Federation, said the new appointment gives them hope, "and that's what we're looking for."

Johnson, a former mayor of the Toronto municipality of East York and known for a plodding manner, was asked whether he planned to bore teacher union leaders into a compromise.

"I gather my reputation is getting out," he answered, laughing.

Ontario's five major teachers unions have been preparing for a provincewide strike to protest the government's new education bill.

Ontario's Progressive Conservative government has pledged to improve the quality of education, while cutting the current $10 billion education budget.

Under the measure, the province would take over from local school boards the power to set class sizes and teacher preparation time. It would also allow non-certified instructors to teach in the classroom.

The unions say the bill's only purpose is to cut $730 million from the education system. They have threatened to strike before the end of October, shutting down schools for the province's 2.1 million students.

"Just changing the players doesn't mean the crisis has been averted," said Earl Manners, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation. The legislation "that's the source of the crisis is still sitting there."

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