Premier Brian Pallister is frequently inclined to remind the citizens of this province that he is the son and brother of teachers, and was once a teacher himself. Citing these background details seems intended to demonstrate that he is in tune with the broader teaching community and the principles of public education.
The problem with the reference, and the implied claim that underlies it, is that if you compare it to the policies his government has created around public education, it quickly begins to ring hollow.
It would not be an understatement to say the Pallister government has indicated an indifference to the opinions and sentiments of teachers and their union, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. Such a sentiment was abundantly clear in the provincial budget, which includes a $150 tax credit for teachers who spend at least $1,000 of their own money on school supplies.
When asked if it was concerning that teachers have to lay out their own cash for supplies, he shook his head: "It doesn’t bother me at all." And then he launched into yet another reminder of how many teachers there have been in his family.
The fact teachers in this province — and, for that matter, across the country — need to dip into their own pockets to buy basic school supplies is nothing short of a national shame. But having a premier who attempts to normalize the practice, while ignoring what it says about the inadequate level of funding his government has provided to public education, is truly alarming.
If only that were the sole act of indifference teachers have faced at the hands of the premier. Along with the indignity of the tax credit, teachers and the local unions that represent school divisions across the province have had to contend with Mr. Pallister’s unofficial wage-freeze policy.
His government passed legislation that would have required teachers, along with other public-sector bargaining groups, to accept a two-year wage freeze with only nominal increases over an additional two years. But that bill was never proclaimed into law.
Instead, the Pallister government simply refused to negotiate directly with unions, while instructing school divisions to hold the line on wage increases. The end result is that like so many other public servants, thousands of teachers remain without a contract.
Relatedly, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the premier’s repeated references to his familial association with the teaching profession is that it hasn’t translated into face-to-face consultation. As has been the case with other important groups, including nurses, Mr. Pallister has preferred edicts to negotiation, and directives over collaboration, even when engaging in broad systemic changes.
When you add it all together, it presents as an odd and disturbing way of treating a group that has been called upon to perform some of the most heroic and stressful front-line duties during the pandemic.
Mr. Pallister might want to consider that if he had not been so quick to discount concerns about teachers paying out of pocket for school supplies, some of his critics might have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Instead, he once again fumbled an opportunity to demonstrate that he has any true affinity with teachers.
Mr. Pallister needs to spend less time regaling Manitobans with tales of his historical connection to the teaching profession, and a bit more time demonstrating genuine concern for the welfare of teachers.