Ontario’s seven would-be premiers said the province needs a new process to deal with teachers after the Bill 115 debacle, but didn’t speak specifics at the Liberal party’s final leadership debate Wednesday night.
“We know we need our partners back,” former Windsor MPP and one-time education minister Sandra Pupatello, 50, told the standing room-only audience of Liberals at The Old Mill Inn in Etobicoke.
Former Parkdale-High Park MPP Gerald Kennedy, 52, also a former Ontario education minister, said a “shift in outlook” is needed.
“They feel a lack of respect,” he said of Ontario teachers. “We have to be prepared to make changes and acknowledge when things have gone off the rails, not just with teachers, but with all of the public sector.”
Outside, teachers and members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees angry at Bill 115 that limited collective bargaining rights, peacefully protested waving placards some of which read, “Respect Teachers.” Police kept a watch on the protest as spectators headed in to the two-hour debate.
Last week, Minister of Education Laurel Broten imposed contracts on Ontario elementary and secondary public school teachers under controversial Bill 115, but promised to repeal it before month’s end as a “show of good faith” to teachers.
The Toronto Liberal leaders’ debate was held in Broten’s Etobicoke riding.
Don Valley West MPP Kathleen Wynne, the Ontario government’s former and longest-standing education minister, said it is “critical” that extracurricular activities be restored in Ontario public elementary and high schools.
It is essential that the Ontario government “formalize” the process of negotiations with teachers’ and support staff unions going forward, Wynne said in a radio interview the morning after the debate.
St. Paul’s MPP Eric Hoskins, 52, also acknowledged the need for the Ontario government to “rebuild the relationship and have a respectful process” with its teachers.
“Please, stand down,” Pupatello urged teachers of their boycott of extracurricular activities, adding it was student council and sports “that kept me going to school every day.”
Candidates at the debate also tackled questions about how to make Toronto’s growth “smart growth” and on Ontario’s economy.
Mississauga-South MPP Charles Sousa, 54, advocated the creation of an oft-discussed regional transit system in Ontario under a Metrolinx umbrella to service riders from Hamilton to Oshawa.
“We need to get rid of the political gridlock,” he said.
Wynne also promoted a regional transit system.
Ontario’s infrastructure needs to be funded through a dedicated revenue stream, Wynne argued and former Ontario transportation minister Harinder Takhar agreed.
Wynne said the race isn’t just about choosing the new Ontario premier; it’s about change.
“We’re not just choosing a new leader. We’re choosing a new direction for the party and for Ontario.”
The debate was the last of six across the province leading to the convention at Maple Leaf Gardens at the end of the month, where delegates will select a successor to McGuinty, who announced his retirement last October.