Mercurial finish for popular head of P.E.I. teachers
Gilles Arsenault ended his term as president of the P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation on a mercurial note Tuesday. He can be credited with forcing the province to back down on reducing the number of teachers for the coming school year after leading the union’s bargaining team in walking away from negotiations with government on a new contract to protest those planned reductions. He accused the province of bargaining in bad faith and precipitated a crisis which saw a major rally planned for Tuesday afternoon at the Legislature. Government blinked at 6 p.m. Monday by agreeing to reassess its decision and both sides are back talking.
An opinion article in Saturday’s Guardian by Peter Rukavina, president of the P.E.I. Home and School Federation, made a powerful appeal for co-operation among all parties. Then a Grade 5 student in Stratford wrote a compelling letter to save teachers’ positions. The articles hit a responsive chord as Education Minister Hal Perry wrote a conciliatory op ed article himself on Monday (it ran in Tuesday’s Guardian) echoing some of Mr. Rukavina’s key points and that evening Premier Wade MacLauchlan personally intervened to end the crisis by agreeing to reassess the decision.
The federation obviously received some fairly strong assurances from the premier because it then called off the protest rally but more than 100 parents and teachers still showed up to show their displeasure. Forty teachers had retired after this school year and only 12 positions are being filled. It raised all kinds of issues about the impact in the classroom and brought to a head the fact that since 2010, there are 140 fewer teachers in the system. Government argued that student enrolment continues to decline and fewer teachers are needed, especially in these tight, budgetary times.
Mr. Arsenault said government showed a renewed willingness to work together and the agreement will see the 28 classroom positions reinstated pending a review process. The issue was greatly inflamed on social media, where usually informed Islanders grossly distorted the actual facts, suggesting there were 40 teachers fired.
So Mr. Arsenault had tumultuous but apparently successful final days as president. The PEITF president was the first to serve a second, two-year term which required special federation approval as the 41 presidents before him served just the one term. Obviously, he was popular and the province’s 1,700 teachers felt they needed him at the helm for a second term.
Then on Saturday, a Guardian story revealed that Mr. Arsenault had sought and won a competition to become the co-ordinator for French language services in the department of education. The revelation surprised many and disappointed others who felt that Mr. Arsenault was in a conflict of interest position and might not have pressed teachers’ concerns early and strongly enough. He intends to remain on the executive as past president, and after taking the summer off, will take up his new education duties in the fall.
Mr. Arsenault adamantly declares he fought for the concerns and rights of teachers during his term as president, and did not need to depend on government for employment. While that is likely true, unfortunately for Mr. Arsenault, the general public perception is indeed one of conflict.
This is not the first time he was in such a position. Last year he declared his intention to seek the Liberal nomination for the federal riding of Egmont. He declared there was no conflict since he was seeking a federal nomination and his teacher’s job was largely provincial in scope. There were calls for him to step aside or resign - including by this newspaper — but Mr. Arsenault held firm. He eventually lost the nomination last November in a close vote. Fulfilling his term Tuesday takes the pressure off him to step aside.
Mr. Arsenault will assuredly do a fine job in his new position in the education field. There is also little doubt that Islanders haven’t seen the last of Mr. Arsenault in a public forum.