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“We would greatly appreciate it if you stopped lying to the people of this province"

Students against Ford
By: 
An Ontario teacher

July 30, 2019

Doug Ford is a man of many contradictions. He presents himself as a “man of the people”, but inherited a multimillion-dollar business. He claims to be all about “family values”, but his brother Rob’s widow alleges that he cheated her out of her share of the family fortune. He claims to be a populist, but achieved his majority government with fewer than a quarter of eligible votes. And, of course, he believes that he is qualified to singlehandedly overhaul education in Ontario after lasting barely two months in college before dropping out. Ironically, his Minister for Education claimed that students upset about Ford’s deep cuts to education were the ones who lacked “resilience”.

Of course, education in a capitalist system is full of its own contradictions. On the one hand, it can provide real, liberating empowerment to students, as they learn how to think critically and creatively; how to deconstruct the system they live under and how to propose desperately-needed alternatives and solutions. On the other hand, it can be turned into mere reinforcement of the unequal and unjust status quo, as they learn how to submit to authority and not to question their lot. The history of education in Ontario is basically the playing-out of the tensions between these two possibilities. Notably, this history is not part of the curriculum, which tells you which side of the debate the ruling class, which sets curriculum, sits on.

That history, though, is playing itself out right now, and parents, teachers, students, and other citizens have the opportunity to shape the way it will turn out. That will involve thinking about what public education in Ontario is really for, and picking a side.

Not on your side
From Ford’s statements and actions, it’s clear which side he’s picked, though his positions are full of their own contradictions. When student protesters interrupted the legislature recently, Ford had them removed and accused them of being ‘indoctrinated’, doubtless by the “crazy Marxist nonsense” he believes teachers force down their students’ unwilling throats. When one of them suggested that Ford kiss his ass, the Premier (who famously told one reporter to “get off her lazy ass” and called another a “little bitch”), countered that the protester’s mouth should be washed out with soap. The Premier has also threatened universities and colleges with funding cuts if they do not allow what he calls “free speech” on campus -- which he insists must include racist and discriminatory language.

Contradictions indeed. But they reveal Ford’s view of education, presumably in the couple of months he attended classes: it’s an authoritarian model, where students are force-fed liberal ideology by scheming Marxist teachers, and brave heroes are victimised by not being allowed to make racist remarks without censure. He has no conception of education as a liberating experience, or any idea that students could make up their own minds about whose ass he should kiss. This mindset was shown again when the province-wide walkout by high school students in protest of massive cuts to programmes was dismissed by Ford as the brainwashing of students by “union thugs.” This prompted a response by the student organisers: “There was absolutely no union or adult involvement at all in any part of our journey, and honestly, I'm sure you know this. We would greatly appreciate it if you stopped lying to the people of this province in order to discredit our work.” A directive to teachers from OSSTF, the high school teachers’ union, not to discuss political actions or positions with students, supports this.

Corporate education
More evidence of Ford’s vision of education can be gleaned by examining his policies, which are also full of contradictions. Who benefits from education, according to Doug Ford? At whose expense should it be managed? Cancelling the free tuition that postsecondary students would have received under the previous Liberal government suggests that he sees education as a commodity, something purchased by students for their own, sole benefit. As such, the logic goes, they should pay for it. But by that logic, the logic of the market, student-consumers should have the final say in what they are buying -- the whole of the university and college systems should be geared to their tastes, fulfilling their demands. Are they? Hardly. Students have negligible influence over course offerings or content, faculty hiring, administration, budget, or infrastructure, let alone tuitions and fees. Ford certainly isn’t advocating a change to those norms.

Ford has retreated “back to the basics”, away from student-led inquiry models of learning mathematics into traditional methods, paradoxically described by Lisa Thompson, the (now former) Minister of Education as “modernizing the classroom.” Thompson justified this shift by claiming that it would “ensure that Ontario students will acquire the skills they need to build successful lives, families and businesses.” You might think, then, that the Ford government sees the object of education as effective training in employable skills -- but if that were the case, the main beneficiaries would be employers, who would get a pool of workers already primed, in habits, attitude, and skills, for wage labour. Surely, then, this would mean a massive increase in corporate taxes to fund publicly-provided job training that employers would otherwise have to pay for out of their own profits? No, it seems that Ford is advocating for a decrease to tax revenues from corporate sources. More contradictions.

Despite assurances that teaching jobs would not be cut, Ford is moving to require all high school students to take four online courses, staffed at much higher student to teacher ratios than traditional classrooms, laying off hundreds of teachers in boards across the province.

Since many students are too poor to own computers or pay for online access, you would think that Ford was advocating for massive investments to eliminate child poverty; I eagerly awaited the announcement. Instead, Ford told us that students who had no web access at home could “go to the library.” Well, you might think, at least libraries will be getting more funding if we’re outsourcing the school system to librarians. But no, Ford announced that he would in fact be cutting library funding drastically. Curious. I looked in vain for news reports of massive crowds of citizens marching with “De-fund libraries” or “Down with Books” signs during the run-up to the provincial election; it seems unclear which members of “the people” Doug is for.

Teachers' pay vs MPP's pay
It certainly isn’t teachers. In a blustery rant in April, Ford warned teachers not to exercise their free speech and listed erroneous interpretations of their working conditions to support his demand, “They get their three months holidays, they have the best benefit package in the entire country, the best pension in the entire country...don’t pull this strike nonsense on the parents and on the poor students.” Nobody had mentioned striking; it’s also unclear why having a pension or a drug plan has anything to do with anything. Holidays, benefits, and pensions certainly seem like good things to Doug Ford and Ontario MPPs; after all, starting MPPs earn twice what a starting teacher makes, have twice the “holidays” (MPPs are off from December to February and again from June to September; teachers are contract workers and are not paid for summer unemployment), can claim travel expenses at 40 cents/km, and recently voted themselves a 20% increase to their housing allowance. Ford also gave 31 MPPs a 14% raise by naming them “parliamentary assistants.” Ford can apparently draw his $208,974 salary without showing up for work consistently; something teachers would have a hard time doing (the Premier has played hookey for the majority of question periods since December). Recently Ford granted himself and MPPs another extended holiday, as he announced that the legislature will not convene again until the end of October, after the Federal election.

Ford seems to be playing the public perception of teachers’ work conditions against those of less-skilled, non-unionised jobs, seeking to stir resentment. Interestingly, the Premier making twice the salary of the highest-paid teacher is not put forward for comparison. But let’s take the Premier at his word: surely, if the difference between teachers’ benefits and those of average workers is a bad thing, then the difference between workers’ and MPPs’ benefits would be even more of a bad thing. No doubt the Premier is hard at work (instead of showing up at Queen’s Park) drafting legislation that would give the average worker six months off, a huge pay raise, the right not to show up for work and still get paid, a commuting allowance, and pay for a second residence closer to work (for convenience). In terms of benefits, maybe he’s looking at finally giving all Ontarians full pharmacare, including dental and glasses, and a livable pension. I myself would enthusiastically support this bill; however, all signs point to policies in the opposite direction. Ontario’s spending on public services per person is the lowest in Canada, and looking to get worse. Ford’s proposed cuts will put public spending back to 1990 levels.

As to the “poor students,” I suppose he will lower class sizes, pay for crumbling infrastructure and air conditioning in schools, protect vulnerable 2SLGBTQI+ students, strengthen student unions, and make it easier for our kids to pay for university. What’s that? I’m told that he’s actually doing the opposite of all those things? Cramming 40 or more students into sweltering classrooms, cancelling infrastructure budgets, erasing 2SLGBTQI+ students’ right to learn about themselves and their own health, undermining union funding, and cancelling interest-free periods for student loans? Hm. Strange. “Balancing the budget” on the backs of the students, while millions of dollars annually are wasted on the Education Quality and Accountability Office and its inane standardised testing regimen, does seem contrary to students’ interests (Ford has drastically increased the salary of the new EQAO chair, a failed Conservative candidate). An entire second school board, duplicating every expense, runs parallel to the public boards; the product of an antiquated war of religion in what was then Upper Canada. Unless anyone can make the case that Catholics are an oppressed group in modern Ontario, it seems like merging the boards would be an obvious way to save money that would save the “poor students” a lot of pain. Likewise the administrative bloat that infects our corporate university system.

Learn to obey
Of course, these contradictions simply mirror the larger contradictions in the broader capitalist society. Ford and his government see education as a way of training our kids to obey their corporate masters in the broader world. It’s a job training programme that costs the corporate class nothing, as their indoctrination is outsourced to the public purse. All of the costs are downloaded to individuals and families, while the benefits are increasingly gobbled up by the 1%. Instead of the mindless, low-level behaviourist indoctrination of the Ford education ministry, where outcomes are pre-ordained and students are tested and sorted, like meat on a conveyor belt, according to how closely they conform to those outcomes, we could have a different type of education altogether. One where the outcomes are not known, and the inner capabilities of all students are nurtured and developed with the aim, not of replicating the corrupt, toxic status quo, but of creating a new world of creative problem solving: one capable of addressing the pressing dangers of climate change, inequality, and the rise of the Right.

Learn to resist
Fortunately, we have the grounds to resist. Ford’s majority at Queen’s Park does not represent a mandate. Fewer than a quarter of eligible voters wanted him as Premier. But even if it did, it would presumably be a ‘mandate’ for things he actually campaigned on --- such as the promise that “not a single job” would be lost in the education sector. Hundreds of teachers in several Ontario districts have already been handed pink slips, with thousands more on the way. Had Doug paid attention in Civics class, instead of allegedly dealing street drugs, he might have learned that a mandate is something given to a politician by a population, to enact their will. Ontarians did not ask for deep cuts to education and libraries. He might have learned that being elected to public office does not mean that officials are handed the Divine Right of Kings by ballot; democracy is not meant to be a four-year rotation of tyrannies. A broad coalition of labour and citizen groups would have majority public support in maintaining the public services they depend on. Unions must be bold in their tactics; they must come off the defensive and begin to show Ontarians how vital and beneficial organised labour can be for the common good. A hundred years ago, union density in Canada was around 10%; the Winnipeg General Strike, just one among many hundreds of strike actions after WW1, showed the nation what a class-conscious labour movement could accomplish. Today Canadian union density is triple what it was then; if we can’t find even a third of the courage they had in 1919, what example are we setting for our students’ future?

 

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