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ONTARIO GOVERNMENT SEEKS BACK-TO-WORK BILL TO FORCE TEACHERS TO RETURN TO CLASSROOMS

The Ontario government has decided to legislate striking and locked-out teachers back to work so that more than 130,000 elementary and secondary school students can return to the classroom for the start of the school year.

"I cannot in good conscience allow this to carry on," Ontario Education Minister Dave Johnson said in explaining why he will introduce the back-to-work bill when the Ontario Legislature meets Monday.

The strikes, rotating strikes and teacher lockouts have forced a number of public and Catholic school boards to cancel classes for the past three weeks.

Catholic high schools in Toronto, Peel Region, Peterborough, Hamilton and Sudbury have been closed, along with Catholic elementary and high schools in York Region and both public and Catholic high schools in Durham Region.

Under the Constitution that united the primarily Protestant English-speaking provinces with primarily Catholic Quebec to form Canada, the founding provinces agreed to give equal treatment and funding to each other's minority schools.

Johnson said he hoped to get all parties to approve his back-to-work bill, so that schools can reopen next week.

But opposition politicians have warned they will force a full debate on the issue. As a result, the ruling Progressive Conservative Party government will likely not be able to use its majority in the Legislature to pass the bill until Oct. 6, with classes resuming a day or two later.

The teachers job-action has centered around how much time they must spend in teaching activities under their current contracts.

The proposed law will affect all of the Ontario school boards facing strikes or lockouts. It will not affect the rotating, one-day strikes launched by public high school teachers.

Earl Manners, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, called the proposed bill "an attempt to scuttle the negotiations that are going on."

He warned that while his union has already settled contracts with six of the 30 public school boards, the move to force teachers back to work will give the school boards a signal "they can abdicate from the negotiations."

Marshall Jarvis, president of the Ontario Catholic Teachers Association, accused the government of railroading through "a biased and unfair process" that favors the Catholic school boards that have locked out his members in eight regions.

But Regis O'Connor, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association, said the government's "good news" means the boards and teachers will be forced to find an agreement quickly, "before the legislation imposes strict" guidelines.

The number of students affected by the strike has been as high as 210,000, but a number of settlements made during the labor dispute has brought that number down to about 134,000.

Last week, one public school board and one Catholic school board reached deals with their local unions, and the Toronto Catholic District School Board called its 2,000 locked out teachers back to the bargaining table on Friday.

Calling these talks "the last kick at the can," Joe Martino, chairman of the Toronto Catholic School Board, said he hoped an agreement could be reached before the back-to-work legislation is passed.

New Democratic Party leader Howard Hampton said his party would not support the back-to-work legislation because it will "not solve the serious problems in our education system."

"The better way would be for the government to put the (equivalent of $198 million U.S. dollars) that they're trying to take out of the system this year back into the classroom," he said.

The disruption caused by the strike led parents in some parts of the province to threaten to force open the schools so they could teach their children.

Ontario Premier Mike Harris also got an unexpected taste of the education imbroglio when he appeared at a reception for South African President Nelson Mandela in the SkyDome. As he approached the stage, Harris was booed and jeered by the 40,000 students at the rally.

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