Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the way the Ontario government enacted the legislation an “attack on people’s fundamental rights.” Some 55,000 education workers are on strike despite the law.
Thousands of Ontario education workers went on strike on Friday in Canada’s most populous province of Ontario in defiance of legislation that rendered any strike action illegal.
The walkout by the workers included educational assistants, workers custodians and administrative staff. Schools across the province have been forced to close.
On Thursday the provincial government rushed through legislation that imposed contracts on 55,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and banned them from striking.
It used a controversial legal manoeuvre called the notwithstanding clause that allowed Premier Doug Ford’s right-leaning Progressive Conservative government to override certain aspects of Canada’s Charter of Rights, which protects employees’ right to form unions.
“The proactive use of the notwithstanding clause is actually an attack on people’s fundamental rights, and in this case, is an attack on one of the most basic rights available that of collective bargaining,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Toronto.
Education workers face heavy fines
Under Ontario’s Keeping Students in Class Act striking workers face daily fines of up to Can$4,000 ($2,970, €2,976) while the union itself could be forced to pay up to Can$500,000 a day.
It also imposed a contract on workers that includes raises of 1.5 to 2.5%, far lower than the union demanded to meet surging costs of living. The average inflation rate is 7%.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce defended the use of the override powers saying students had faced enough disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years.
“Nothing matters more right now than getting all students back in the classroom and we will use every tool available to us to do so,” Lecce said.
He said the strike was illegal and the province had filed a complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board against CUPE workers.
Still, workers started picket lines at dozens of locations across the province, including outside Lecce’s office.
The union also warned that the school support workers would not return to the job anytime soon.
Controversial notwithstanding clause
The notwithstanding clause in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedom gives provincial legislatures or Parliament the ability to override certain portions of the Charter, allowing them to bypass constitutional challenges.
Ford also invoked it in the past to reduce the size of Toronto’s city council and limit third-party advertising in the 2022 provincial elections, which he won.
Quebec province, which has used it in the past in support of the French language, recently came under fire for applying it to prohibit public servants from wearing religious symbols such as crosses or hijabs.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association warned in the Ontario case that the rights of Canadian workers were “being shredded before our very eyes.”
Justice Minister David Lametti, vowing a review of its use said the clause is supposed to “safeguard parliamentary supremacy, but as a last word.”