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By Mike Pickford
Ontario college students experienced their second ‘back to school' day in as many months Tuesday after the five-week standoff between the College Employer Council and the union representing Ontario's college faculties came to an enforced end.
Under mounting pressure from half a million students across Ontario, the provincial legislature passed back-to-work legislation on Sunday (Nov. 19) during a special weekend sitting, sending both parties to binding mediation-arbitration.
For many, this was a long time coming. Students and parents alike had been left disillusioned by the impasse, which will officially go down as the longest college strike in Ontario's history. Dufferin-Caledon MPP Sylvia Jones spoke to the Free Press on Tuesday, minutes before classes were to resume in the local community. She declared herself “disappointed” that the issue wasn't resolved sooner.
“Frankly, I'm disappointed we didn't have this conversation a week ago. It was pretty clear from the start that this was going to be a long process. The two sides weren't sitting down and having discussions at all,” Ms. Jones said. “Unless the government became engaged and got involved, this was going to be a long, protracted strike.”
She added, “Frankly, I'm disappointed it took this long.”
Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews told media that she didn't believe earlier intervention was an option due to strict Supreme Court rulings.
“There is a very high bar. Collective bargaining is protected. The Supreme Court has ruled that you have to have a very, very good rationale, that the academic year (must be) in jeopardy,” Ms. Matthews told media at Queen's Park. “Had we gone before that final offer vote (on Nov. 16), this absolutely would have been challenged.”
Negotiations had been ongoing for approximately five months as Ontario colleges and its faculty tried to come to an agreement. In total, roughly 12,000 professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians have been on the picket line since Oct. 16. The big loser in all of this has been the students. They have largely been left in the lurch, their semester slipping away with each passing day. While the majority are relieved to be back in the classroom, the prolonged strike will likely impact many student's summer plans, with some college's planning to extend the fall semester until Dec. 22, while others plan to use the first week of January to complete the term.
For Georgian College student Kayla Verrinder, the interruption in the school year may impact her plans to enter another course in May. She is currently taking chemistry and biology courses to upgrade her skills before applying to a nursing program. Kayla planned on completing her courses then applying to George Brown College in Toronto for a summer semester.
“I had goals for myself. My schedule said I should have completed one goal by Oct. 12 and that is now a full month behind,” Kayla told the Free Press. “I'm going to come in as much as I can to get the quizzes done and try to fast-track everything. I'm trying to get in for a May start at George Brown. Now I'm not even sure if I'll be able to make that.”
She added, “This might end up holding back a lot of students, not just me. Right now, I'm not sure what's going to happen.”
Kayla's fellow biology student at Georgian, Carly McAree, is currently working to upgrade her skills with an eye towards entering the institution's Practical Nursing program.
“I'm upgrading to be an RPN. The strike hasn't affected me too much because I'm upgrading, so a lot of the course load is on my own time. I come in here and talk to an instructor who looks over my work and gives me the tests,” Ms McAree said. “Still, I know a lot of people who were worried. My sister goes to Sheridan College in Oakville and she was really worried. For her, this was a huge deal. For me, it still affected me because I couldn't come in and complete the work.”
That is the big worry for Ms. Jones – the thousands of students who have effectively had their lives put on hold courtesy of the 36-day deadlock. While the province has announced it will offer refunds to full-time students that ask for one within two weeks, to go along with the $500 “hardship” aid college's announced last week, Ms. Jones feels neither is enough compensation for what the students have missed out on.
“The semester is 15 weeks long. We're talking about a third of that now that students will not be able to recoup. I think this is a real failure on behalf of the government,” Ms. Jones said.
“What I want to see done here, at the end of the day, is to see that all students are properly recouping costs they have incurred through this strike. We cannot give them back those five weeks of education. They will not see an extension of five weeks. They will not get that time back, so the least (the government should be doing) is ensuring they're not financially burdened because of this strike.”
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