Viewpoints: One can only wonder what the future might hold for Wyant

June 29, 2019

For several years, it was my pleasure to occasionally work with David Wilkins and his staff. Wilkins is the former U.S. Ambassador to Canada; a man of playful wit and serious political experience. Fans of the Rick Mercer Report may remember the Ambassador’s cheerful decimation of Mr. Mercer on an Ottawa tennis court.

I often heard Ambassador Wilkins recite a quote that exhibited both his playfulness and his political acumen. When a difficult or potentially divisive decision was finally made, he’d say, “We’re with you as long as we can be.”

It was a reference to the often transitory nature of support from your friends in politics. To me, the implication was clear. “We’ll support you, until we can’t. Don’t take it personally.” Never has the operation of the political mind been so clearly laid bare.

I was reminded of the Ambassador’s expression when listening to Saskatchewan Minister of Education Gord Wyant. The occasion was his address to the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation Annual Meeting of Council on May 4, 2019.

The speech was short, abundant in neither detail nor specifics. However, the speech sounded all the right notes. Minister Wyant spoke of the need for honest and respectful conversations and about the importance of keeping doors open for continued dialogue.

He acknowledged modest success in improving literacy amongst our youngest students and the small but steady progress in increasing on-time graduation rates for Indigenous students.

Minister Wyant talked about needing the voice of teachers to help craft a strategic plan for Saskatchewan education beyond 2020. He spoke of valuing the opinions of the people in the room [teachers] and humbly admitted to not having all of the answers.

However, at the end of a round of polite applause, I was left with a nagging question. Is he with us, or with us as long as he can be?

The answer to this question is both timely and crucial. We are entering a new round of provincial collective bargaining; a round that will challenge established norms. We will be entering into this process with a firm commitment to transparency. We’ll also be asking for solutions to the critical difficulties created by increasing class size and classroom complexity.

Teachers tell us they are drowning and need more and better supports, including, but not limited to, help with students presenting complex mental and physical needs. Teachers also want a return to what were once basic supports like school counselling services, speech pathology and English as an additional language.

If teachers are drowning, the lifelines required seem to be obvious. These are clearly solutions that can be implemented at the bargaining table to the benefit of teachers, students and parents–provided there is the political will.

Does that political will exist? The historical record holds little promise. We have seen changes in the way education is administered in our province–changes that centralize control and erode local autonomy.

In the March 2009 provincial budget, school boards were stripped of their authority to set taxes. Boards were no longer free to set their own mill rates and generate extra funds for specific priorities.

Old-school investigative reporters advise you to follow the money, both in the movies and in the real world. When the money’s all in one place, so is the power. And for now, power and authority in K-12 education rests with the Ministry.

Dramatic centralization of power also came with the passage of Bill 63 in May of 2017. The bill was passed with little consultation. It gives the Minister wide-ranging powers with very few remaining checks and balances. Performance targets, evaluation standards–even the closure or continued existence of a school–all are subject to ministerial whim.

The historical pattern is clear–centralization of authority and marginalization of teacher voice in strategic planning.

The solution is also clear. The professionals who deal each day with the reality of today’s classroom will gladly tell you where the current system is failing and how to address those failures.

Teacher voice must be heard. The bargaining table will now become the microphone for that voice.

This will be difficult, given the current government’s penchant for seeing education funding as a spike belt spanning the road to a balanced budget, rather than an investment in Saskatchewan’s future. However, teachers are used to difficult work.

So, is Saskatchewan’s Minister of Education truly with teachers, or with us as long as he can be?

I guess we’ll know soon enough.