Thousands of Ontario education workers hit picket lines across the province Friday morning, honking noisemakers, waving flags and chanting "stand up, fight back," on the first day of an indefinite walkout that's shut many schools.
A day earlier, the Progressive Conservative government enacted a law imposing a contract on 55,000 education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees and banned them from striking, pre-emptively using the notwithstanding clause to guard against constitutional challenges.
But CUPE began a strike anyway, with the largest protest happening at the legislature, where workers spread out over the lawn of the legislature and marched in a line around the building on streets closed off by police. Workers and their supporters at times chanted and listened to speeches, but mostly milled around in the unseasonable warmth.
A long line formed at an enterprising ice cream truck and children brought to the protest by their families ate snacks and practised cartwheels on the lawn.
But the issues at hand are serious, protesters said. CUPE has said its workers, who make on average $39,000 a year, are generally the lowest paid in schools and Janet Johnson, a special needs assistant, said people can't afford to live on that salary, even with the wage increases that come with the imposed contract.
"It's not just about the money and the benefits," she said. "It's about being recognized for being a necessity in the school system and that we're professionals."
Evan Giannis, also a special needs assistant, said a better deal for education workers would have meant the school system could better retain workers such as himself, who are in short supply and who are necessary to ensure children with disabilities can participate in school.
"I keep hearing this constant rhetoric that 'Oh, the children, they need school, they can't afford to miss a day of school,'" he said.
"How about the constant children that miss school that don't have enough support? The children that are aren't able to receive support because there's not enough support. Do those children not matter?"
Denise Handlarski, who brought her eight- and six-year-old kids to the protest, said the government should have used the $365 million it is spending to give parents direct "catch up" payments of $200 to pay education workers more and avoid a strike.
"I think that (Premier Doug) Ford thinks that he can buy the support of parents and I want to show him that that's not the case," Handlarski said.
"We support the education workers and we think that what he's done here is really unfair."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also weighed in on the labour dispute on Friday, saying he had asked Premier Doug Ford not to pre-emptively invoke the notwithstanding clause. The clause allows legislatures to override parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.
Trudeau reiterated that his government was looking at "all options" to respond to Ford's use of the clause, but didn't commit to preventing provincial governments from using it in the future.
"It would be much better if instead of the federal government having to weigh in ... it should be Canadians saying, 'Hold on a minute, you’re suspending my right to collective bargaining? You’re suspending fundamental rights and freedoms that are afforded to us in the charter?'" Trudeau said at an unrelated appearance in Toronto.
CUPE members – who include education assistants, custodians and librarians – also gathered outside politicians' offices across the province, including Education Minister Stephen Lecce's constituency office in Vaughan, Ont.
Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said outside Lecce's office called on the government to return to negotiations and said protests will continue if that doesn't happen.
“You cannot rip away the rights of workers and expect...that we are just going to take it sitting down,” she said.
Aaron Guppy, a caretaker at the York Region District School Board, said he was fighting not only for himself, but for all workers.
"If they take away our rights as a union, every other union is next," he said outside Lecce's office. "They are not going to stop with just us."
The government is taking CUPE to the Ontario Labour Relations Board on Friday, seeking to have the strike declared illegal and the actions by union leaders to encourage the job action declared unlawful.
"Nothing matters more right now than getting all students back in the classroom and we will use every tool available to us to do so,” Lecce wrote in a statement.
The law sets out fines for violating a prohibition on strikes for the life of the agreement of up to $4,000 per employee per day – which could amount to $220 million for all 55,000 workers – while there are fines of up to $500,000 per day for the union.
CUPE plans to fight the fines, but has also said that it will pay the penalties if it has to. Unifor said it was donating $100,000 to the cause.
Members of other unions -- including the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and Unifor -- joined CUPE members on the picket lines Friday.
In Ottawa, education workers and their supporters protested at a busy intersection. Jordan Chyzowski, a letter carrier for Canada Post, said he and two of his friends who are not CUPE members went to protest because workers have been silenced for too many years.
“Workers do not want to strike but they will strike when they need to against an unfair government,” said Chyzowski.
Many school boards across the province closed schools Friday, with some moving to remote learning. The Toronto District School Board has said schools would remain closed for the duration of the strike, though several others have not yet outlined plans for next week.
In Milton, Ont., part of the Halton District School Board, which kept schools open Friday, parent Yasir Aziz, said he thinks the strike is "complicated" and worries about what happens if the board cancels classes in the event of an extended strike.
"The problem that we have, like parents, is that we're working," said Aziz as he dropped his kids off at school. "I can't leave my work, same for my wife. No one is at home to take care of them."
The Ministry of Education has urged school boards to "implement contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible" and otherwise "must support students in a speedy transition to remote learning."
The government originally offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, but Lecce said the new, imposed four-year deal would give 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.
CUPE has said that framing is not accurate because the raises actually depend on hourly wages and pay scales, so the majority of workers who earn less than $43,000 in a year wouldn't get 2.5 per cent.
CUPE had been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent.
-With files from Jessica Smith
By Allison Jones, The Canadian Press