01/06/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 03/07/2013 05:12 EST

Ontario Liberal Leadership Race: Candidates Face Off In Ajax Debate

AJAX, Ont. - Ontario's Liberal leadership hopefuls are divided on what they'd do to end the labour strife with public school teachers who are outraged with the government for imposing new contracts under a controversial anti-strike law.

The topic of teachers was barely mentioned during Sunday's two-hour candidates' debate, despite the wall of protesters picketing outside the convention centre in Ajax, east of Toronto.

Former education minister Gerard Kennedy, who met with the demonstrators, was the only candidate who said he'd rip up the two-year collective agreements that have been forced on teachers and restart negotiations for new ones.

"The only way to rebargain is to be prepared to reopen those or to start afresh," he told The Canadian Press. "And I'm not sure which will work, but I think that's probably starting again."

None of the other candidates said they'd go that far, but almost all promised to meet union leaders to try to resolve the dispute.

Kathleen Wynne, who also served as education minister, said she never wanted contracts imposed on teachers, but wouldn't rip them up if she became premier.

"We can't start from square one," she said after the debate. "We absolutely need to move on from where we are. It's about what the next process is going to look like and it's not for me to pre-empt that conversation right now."

"It's very important to me that it be an open conversation with everyone," she added. "But there is no more money."

Former cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello — who along with Kennedy wasn't in government when the bill was passed in September — said her distance from the legislation may help her forge a better relationship with teachers.

"Because the teacher leadership have said very clearly and publicly that they understand that they would accept the same package — no additional costs associated — there's got to be room for us to manoeuvre," she said.

"I don't know if that means ripping up contracts."

The seven candidates discussed transit, health care in the 905 area around Toronto and their priorities as premier during the second-to-last debate in the leadership race, which will conclude at the end of January.

But one of the biggest challenges Premier Dalton McGuinty's successor will face is rebuilding the party's alliance with teachers, a powerful group that has helped keep the Liberals in power for nine years.

That relationship appears to be at an all-time low now that the government has forced contracts on 126,000 public school teachers and education workers across the province.

Teachers who demonstrated outside the convention centre said they want to see the next premier rip up those contracts and hammer out new ones with their unions.

McGuinty has promised to repeal the controversial law that gave his government the power to force the collective agreements on teachers. But many of the demonstrators say that won't bring them back — or entice them to vote Liberal in the next election.

"It actually makes me more angry because they've already put it into effect, and now that they don't need it, they're going to get rid of it, which doesn't change anything for us," said high-school teacher Helen Lockhart, who has been instructing students for 13 years.

Public elementary teachers staged one-day strikes in protest of the Bill 115, while high school teachers cut out extracurricular activities and some administrative duties.

McGuinty said he personally called union leaders to ask that teachers resume extracurricular activities, but Lockhart — and others protesting outside the convention centre — said that's not going to happen.

Lockhart has stopped all her extracurricular work — which included running three music groups — and doesn't plan to return to those voluntary activities while the two-year contract is still in force.

"I don't see that changing for myself unless we do get a better contract that we can negotiate with our employer," she said.

It's hard on students, especially those who plan to graduate and need experience for their application to college or university. But her students are supportive, she said.

James Sullivan, an elementary school teacher who coached five sports at his school in Durham, said he can't go back to those activities when he has to focus on restoring his democratic right to collective bargaining.

"McGuinty said we cannot legislate the goodwill of our teachers, and he's right," Sullivan said. "So I don't think it's going to happen."

Both the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation say their members have overwhelmingly voted in favour of political protests if the government forced new contracts on them, which may include walkouts. They plan to meet with their executives this week to discuss their next steps.

Sam Hammond, who leads ETFO, called the government's actions a "disgraceful misuse of power" and warned that it won't be "business as usual" when students return to class on Monday.

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