Mer­cu­rial fin­ish for pop­u­lar head of P.E.I. teach­ers

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL -

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.

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