Kingston and the Islands Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Ted Hsu has spoken out about the Doug Ford Conservative government’s use of the notwithstanding clause amid a high-profile standoff between education workers and the province. On Thursday evening, Nov. 3, 2022, the Ontario legislature passed Bill 28, or the Keeping Students in Class Act, which pre-emptively bans education workers from hitting the picket line, as negotiations between the two parties failed to materialize into an official agreement.
What has made the government’s actions particularly noteworthy is the bill’s use of Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — also known as the notwithstanding clause — to shield the legislation from potential constitutional challenges in court. The legislation marks the first time in Canadian history that the clause has been used during a labour dispute.
Hsu said, “Using the notwithstanding clause means cancelling Section 2, fundamental freedoms; Section 7, the right to life, liberty and security of the person; and Section 15, equality rights; just so that this Conservative government can head off court challenges and impose its inflation-adjusted real wage cut on education workers.” The Kingston and the Islands MPP, along with his Ontario Liberal Party colleagues, voted against the bill; it ultimately passed by a vote of 74-30.
The act imposes a 2.5 per cent wage increase for education workers who make less than $43,000 annually, while all other workers will receive a 1.25 per cent raise. The contract will be kept in place for four years. “Bill 28 imposes the Ford government’s phony raise on workers, some of whom are the most vulnerable to cost-of-living increases,” Hsu argued. “After adjusting for inflation, it’s actually a wage cut. At the same time, the government is running a surplus and has set aside billions in contingency funds.”
The local MPP also raised concerns about potential future uses of the notwithstanding clause, and the overall impact the act could have on public sector workers’ right to collective bargaining. “Bill 28 serves as a warning to the labour movement by signalling that the Ford government will only negotiate to a point. They will negotiate until they decide they don’t want to anymore, and then use entirely inappropriate means to impose their will.”
Despite the fact that Bill 28 imposes a contract on education workers and bans any potential job action, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents over 55,000 education workers in Ontario, has said its members will be on strike starting Friday, Nov. 4. “There will be a strike tomorrow… for as long as it takes,” declared Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions.
It is unclear what the consequences will be for workers who defy Bill 28 and head to the picket lines starting tomorrow. Under the new legislation, employees can be charged up to $4,000 per day if they strike. What is clear, however, is that Kingston-area public schools will be closed as long as education workers are on strike.
Kingstonist sought comment from Conservative MPPs Rick Bresee of Hastings-Lennox and Addington and John Jordan of Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, but neither was available by the time of publication. A representative from Bresee’s office said that the MPP currently has COVID-19 and was therefore unable to respond. Kingstonist did not receive any response from Jordan’s office.