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By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Dozens of union members affiliated with the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) gathered in protest outside of Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Geneviève Hébert’s office Thursday afternoon.

The CSQ, which represents roughly 125,000 members in the education field, called on its unions in a show of solidarity. They are demanding the provincial government come back to the negotiation table to establish a new contract for educators and support staff.

With music blaring in the background, protesters lined King Street East, some waving blue flags with the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers logo and others holding posters with the words “It has to change now!”

Members of the Appalachian Teachers’ Association (ATA) were also present for the protest, having received an invitation to stand in line with their French counterparts. According to ATA Treasurer Martin Roberts, teachers are fed up with the current situation.

“The government said ‘we’re going to invest’ but they haven’t shown any investment whatsoever, so they went against their electoral promises about basically attracting teachers and so forth; things have gotten worse,” said Roberts.

Work conditions have deteriorated over the last 10 years, he continued, not to mention Quebec pays its teachers the lowest wages in Canada. Teachers have been stuck in contract negotiation limbo for over a year now, mainly due to the ongoing pandemic.

However, teachers’ unions fought for better contracts before the COVID-19 outbreak. Overcrowded classrooms, lack of resources, teacher shortages and special needs programs have been neglected for years, Roberts said.

“We have integrated classrooms with no support, no resources, so when these children go through our system and can’t read or write up to level, there’s no wonder why, because we’re stretched too thin,” he said.

ATA Secretary April Blampied, who was also present for the protest, told The Record that Quebec’s teacher shortage can be linked to back to university. The number of people seeking education degrees is dwindling, she said, and if they do get a degree, they leave the province.

Roberts added that a bit less than 30 per cent of Quebec education graduates leave for greener pastures within five years. The pair believes that this has a direct correlation to weak salaries. It also leaves a heavier burden on teachers currently in the system.

“They want to give us more hours in our workloads without bringing any money to the table, just putting more hours and more tasks,” said Blampied. “Teachers are already burning out, they’re burning out in such numbers that we have unqualified people teaching our classes.”

Roberts added that the ATA, and other school unions, voted in favour of a five-day strike, but they don’t want it to come to that. The goal isn’t to inconvenience children or parents, he explained, but teachers’ working conditions are also students’ learning conditions.

The problem is the Quebec government has failed to hear out any of the associations’ recommendations during the pandemic. If push comes to shove, Roberts and his counterparts are prepared to use their mandated strike period.

“We’re hoping that the government in the spring will be able to sign a contract that is win-win, win for the teachers, win for the kids and ultimately a win for the whole province,” said Roberts.

Members of the Township Regional Union Support Staff, which represents school staff such as secretaries, day care supervisors, bus drivers, janitors, and lunch monitors, were also on hand. Sonia Labrie, the union’s president, said it has been a struggle for many of her members.

“[The government] doesn’t want to return to the negotiation table, they say they don’t have money, but the money, at the end of the day, our demands were made before Covid,” she said.

There are about 80 bus drivers in the Eastern Townships, Labrie said, but their demands are often ignored by the government. There aren’t a lot of hours available for many support staff, she added, and now they’ve developed a worker shortage.

“There’s a shortage of school support staff because these aren’t full time jobs,” said Labrie. “They don’t have a salary, there aren’t a lot of hours, so we’re missing personnel and bus drivers.”

She wants to make sure her members aren’t forgotten in the contract negotiation process. Labrie is asking the government to increase hourly wages given to support staff and restructure their broken schedule bonuses. They also voted in favour of a strike, but prefer not to use it.

“If, for example, the government says we’ll negotiate, we’ll sit down, then we won’t have a strike. We voted in favour of a five-day strike, but it doesn’t mean we’ll use it,” Labrie said.

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