The list of opponents to Bill 64 now includes multiple contenders for the Tory leadership, including MLAs who had kept quiet about their party’s controversial education reforms until the premier announced his impending leave.

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The list of opponents to Bill 64 now includes multiple contenders for the Tory leadership, including MLAs who had kept quiet about their party’s controversial education reforms until the premier announced his impending leave.

Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson has made scrapping the Education Modernization Act a centrepiece in her bid to become the next leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>PC MLA Heather Stefanson at her announcement Wednesday that she will be running for the leadership of the Manitoba PC party, attended by Education Minister Cliff Cullen, far left.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

PC MLA Heather Stefanson at her announcement Wednesday that she will be running for the leadership of the Manitoba PC party, attended by Education Minister Cliff Cullen, far left.

Stefanson’s promise the legislation would be "done" under her leadership was met by a round of applause from roughly 15 PC MLAs, including Education Minister Cliff Cullen, who attended her campaign kick-off Wednesday.

Since Bill 64 was unveiled in mid-March, teachers, parents and trustees have been outspoken about their concerns that replacing elected boards with a centralized authority of government appointees will silence local voices.

Numerous campaigns with corresponding lawn signs were launched to call on the province to kill the bill and more than 500 people — a record in the history of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly — have signed up to speak about the legislation at committee stage, which is anticipated this fall.

When reached by phone Thursday, Finance Minister Scott Fielding, who is still considering whether to run for the leadership, indicated he is also in favour of ripping up the bill.

"Once the legislative assembly ends, you go back into your own community and you listen to people. You listen to what’s going right. You listen to what’s going wrong — and clearly, what people have said is we’ve gone too far with Bill 64," said Fielding, noting he heard constituents’ concerns loud and clear this summer.

Fielding said there’s an appetite for change in the education system, but the governing party needs to listen to Manitobans and take seriously rural concerns about the loss of local autonomy.

Other potential PC leadership candidates who have indicated they would reconsider the legislation include former MP Shelly Glover and city Coun. Scott Gillingham, who represents St. James.

Glover has said she would halt Bill 64 and undertake "proper consultation" with teachers and local governments. Meantime, Gillingham said the fact the reforms would take power from local elected officials and centralize it in the premier’s office goes against his personal beliefs.

Despite the fact more politicians both in and outside the PC caucus are raising alarm bells, the legislation is still on the table.

"We thought last year was the toughest start to a school year for everyone, but déjà vu — we’re going through all that again, and layered on top of that is Bill 64. Is it dead? Is it alive?" said Nathan Martindale, vice-president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.

Teachers and trustees alike remain especially confused given the fact that Cullen appears to support tossing out the bill he has long championed, after his appearance at Stefanson's kick-off. The minister directed media questions to his office Wednesday.

"By all accounts, Cliff Cullen applauded her plan," said Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association. "He needs to announce the immediate withdrawal of Bill 64 so that divisional leadership, school boards, front-line education staff and all of our education leadership partners can simply focus on a safe start to the school year."

In a statement Thursday, a government spokesperson said government house leader Kelvin Goertzen will address issues related to the fall session before it starts in October.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.