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Persevering Through the Challenges of a Year Like No Other

Sam Hammond

The 2019-2020 school year was one for the history books. We started the year bargaining with a Conservative government determined to make massive cuts to public education and ended with a global pandemic and our members having to adjust to emergency distance learning over the course of just a couple of weeks.

Through our perseverance, our solidarity, our strong connections with parents, communities and education affiliates we were able to fight back the worst of the cuts. Educators, parents and community members know that a well-funded, quality public education system means that students, no matter where they live or what their circumstances, receive an equitable start. ETFO members showed their overwhelming support for bargaining by voting 97 and 94 percent in favour of the tentative settlements reached for teachers/occasional teachers and education workers respectively. In May as I write this, bargaining continues at the local level for many in the province.

Since March, we have been navigating the worst pandemic of our lifetime. Educators across the province have been working tirelessly to engage students and teach through emergency distance learning, all the while knowing how central school is to a child’s life and worrying about our students’ wellbeing as many families struggle with the realities of the pandemic. There’s no way around it. This time has been exceptionally difficult for everyone.

During this trying time, we have seen incredible acts of kindness and support in our communities. But while a crisis can bring out the best in people, it can also bring out the worst. We have seen racism and bigotry; we have seen attacks on Asian Canadians; we have seen this virus disproportionately affect racialized communities, people with disabilities and the elderly. This reminds us how important it is to have anti-racism and equity embedded in everything we do. The importance of the work that is done in schools, in other workplaces, in our communities and in ETFO to build a more just society becomes so much more apparent in a time of crisis.

Despite limited data, we know the crisis has affected marginalized and racialized communities more than others. We also see the impact on many front-line workers, who despite being essential to the well-being of Ontarians, have to continue to fight for personal protective equipment, paid sick days and basic protections in their workplace. We see the devastation in long-term care, a system that was thrown wide-open to privatization under Mike Harris, now the chair of the biggest for-profit long-term care corporation in Canada. These corporations have under paid workers, cut corners and failed to provide the equipment necessary to keep workers and residents safe. ETFO will continue to advocate for all Ontarians to have decent wages, benefits, paid sick-leave and other basic labour rights and for the universal public long-term care system that we clearly need.

We know the importance of well-funded, universal public services. Without the years of struggle to protect our healthcare system this crisis would have been much worse. Our debt to healthcare workers should be repaid with a commitment to stand in solidarity when they face attacks from this or any other government.

Every summer issue of Voice, we celebrate the achievements of women and recommit to the women’s programs that make ETFO such an important leader in the labour movement. Globally, women have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic, and women have in many cases led the response. Our commitment to women’s programs is consistent with our commitment to equity and social justice and I am proud to be the president of a union that is actively working for equity both within our organization and in our broader communities.

We learned this year that sometimes you have to fight like hell to hold on to what you believe in. We will continue to fight for quality public education and to advocate for our members, our students and our communities as we finish the school year remotely and plan for a safe return to school in the fall.

Have a safe, restful and enjoyable summer.

– Sam Hammond