09/12/2012 12:33 EDT | Updated 11/12/2012 05:12 EST

How Bill 115 Robs Us Teachers Of Our Dignity


Like it or not, teachers are responsible for the survival of democracy. They are often the first people, and in some cases, the ONLY people to introduce each new generation to the habits and virtues of democracy. But what do we mean when we talk about teachers and democracy?

Are we referring to a delivery system where a recitation about systems of government and lists of branches, departments, and powers installs information into students? Or are we talking about a process -- the development of an understanding of a living and dynamic way of relating to people in all their complexity -- a way of life that is protected by a constitution and the rule of law?

Every good teacher knows that students learn best through experience. The days of "repeat after me" are, we hope, behind us. But how can we inculcate the habits of democracy into our students when they observe and experience unreasonable restrictions on the rights of the very people who are charged with teaching them about fairness?

Imagine yourself, for a moment, attempting to present the concept of freedom of association to a group of grade 3 students. No easy task -- and what on earth would impel anyone to do such a thing? Well, the curriculum requires teachers at many grade levels to introduce rights and responsibilities, and particularly rules of fair play.

When teaching children about rights we expect them to understand that there are things that groups of people can do that individuals cannot accomplish. Most of our rights were won by groups of people working together for the common good. They did not always agree with one another but they stood up for each other's right to be part of the process. We hope that even young children can learn that people identify themselves and experience dignity according to the groups to which they belong.

Let's look at who our children are. One child is proud to be a member of a sports team, another belongs to a reading club, and another child likes to show how his class planted the garden in front of the school. And one child enjoys talking about the food her class collected for the hungry families in the neighborhood. None of them could have done these alone. They all need to be able to form groups and associations to accomplish even these simple organizational tasks. And each of these groups and tasks has required negotiating with other people. We expect children to learn to do this because these are the skills we all need to work together in our communities, in our democracy.

Bill 115, passed this week by the Ontario Legislature, has removed a significant measure of dignity from our precious resource, our teachers. Rather than offer these important people the respect that Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees people under section 2 (d), Ontario has shown such disrespect that teachers have not even been given a chance to do what each of the children in the groups above have been prepared and expected to do -- negotiate and find a workable solution to their conflicts.

This legislation hasn't been brought in to protect children or to put them first. It has been brought in to pre-emptively punish people and curtail their legal options, although they have done nothing wrong. What if teachers behaved like this government? Imagine children being told that they will not be allowed to seek permission to create a club because the school doesn't trust them to make the proper arrangements -- nor to go out for recess because they might misbehave. It would not take long for someone to shout, "That's not fair."

Bill 115 is unfair. Pre-emptive law making denies the rights of employees "just in case." Preventing the exercise of the right to strike before any strike or lock-out occurs is like preventing children from going out for recesses before they have done anything wrong . The Ontario government has imposed terms on parties who want to negotiate, even before knowing whether they are at an impasse or what outcome they would have negotiated for themselves. That is not a good lesson in democracy for any of us.