Students want back in class
A handful of students from Brockville’s St. Lawrence College campus joined a provincewide protest Tuesday calling on the province to end the persisting faculty strike.
Five students from the local campus held placards in front of Leeds- Grenville MPP Steve Clark’s office around 9 a.m., part of an Ontariowide student effort coinciding with three days of voting on an offer from the College Employer Council.
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Brockville protest organizer Kristen Echlin said she is personally on the side of faculty, but the student demonstrators are not taking sides in the dispute.
Rather, they are calling on Premier Kathleen Wynne to enact back-to-work legislation.
“We just want to get back to class,” said Echlin.
“Kathleen Wynne, where the hell is she? This is the longest strike in history and she’s not stepping up.”
The students were planning to protest in front of Clark’s Strowger Boulevard office again Wednesday morning, followed by an “Ass to Class” sit-in at the campus on Thursday.
Half a million college students across Ontario, including about 6,000 students at St. Lawrence College, have been out of class since Oct. 15, when 12,000 college professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians went on strike.
Echlin, 28, who is studying in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, also works as a registered practical nurse and has to support two children.
“If they extend the semester for a month (after the strike) I’m not going to be able to work for a month,” she said.
Other students across the province face even tougher crises, added Echlin, citing reports of students who have lost access to mental health services.
She hopes back-to-work measures will lead to mediation and a positive outcome for striking college workers.
The strike is also an unwelcome interruption for Steph Merkley, 35, who is studying in the mental wellness and addictions program.
“I just want to be back in class. It took me 17 years to get here, so I would like to be back,” said Merkley.
The strike is causing other kinds of disruptions in students’ lives, added fellow mental wellness and addictions student Maddie Thompson, 19.
“We pay to be there, so we’re losing money every day,” said Thompson.
“There’s a lot of students who cannot go home because they’re from other provinces and other countries,” she added.
“We’re just in limbo; we don’t know anything,” added Echlin.
Nick Morrow, 19, is supposed to be studying at the Brockville campus through the Community Integration through Co-operative Education (CICE) program.
“I’m in my first year and I want to get back to class and not see my first year go down the toilet,” he said.
The two sides are at odds about what the union is calling an imbalance of precarious and part-time work, job security and academic freedom.
The College Employer Council said its latest offer includes a 7.75 per cent salary increase over four years, improved benefits – including extended pregnancy and parental leave, and a $500 increase in coverage for paramedical services – and measures to address concerns regarding part-time faculty.
Staff for Clark, a Progressive Conservative MPP, spoke to the Brockville protesters.
In a telephone interview from Queen’s Park, Clark said: “I’m proud of them for taking a stand.”
“Myself and my caucus, we’ve been calling on the government to take a more hands-on approach right from the start,” added Clark.
The local MPP said he asked the premier about what contingency plans are in place to save the semester and had received no assurances so far.
“That lack of answer is fuelling anxiety and stress levels felt by the students,” added Clark.
In an email to The Recorder and Times, Tanya Blazina, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, said the government’s focus has, from the start, been on the students.
“That’s why the Minister is requiring that colleges establish a dedicated fund with all the savings from the strike. The fund will be used to support students who have experienced financial hardships as a result of the strike,” she added.
“Faculty are voting on the employer’s final offer through the independent Ontario Labour Relations Board beginning today and continuing throughout the week. We now need to let that process unfold,” Blazina continued.
I just want to be back in class. It took me 17 years to get here, so I would like to be back,” Steph Merkley
From left, Nick Morrow, Kourtney Kelly and Kristen Echlin take part in a protest outside Leeds-Grenville MPP Steve Clark's office on Tuesday.