The Ontario government has tabled legislation to force striking high school teachers back to work, meaning tens of thousands of students could be back in the classroom later this week.

With students and parents worried about the length of the work stoppage, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, a former school trustee and education minister, was forced to act.

While the move will likely allow the students to complete their academic year, it signals just the beginning of a rough road ahead on the education file, especially for a premier who had the support of teachers and began governing with an expectation of achieving labour peace.

The decision to legislate teachers back to work came after the Education Relations Commission, an obscure independent body appointed by the province, ruled on Monday morning that the strike was putting the students’ school year in jeopardy. More than 70,000 high school students at three school boards – Durham, Sudbury and Peel – were affected.

The commission took 10 days to make its ruling, and some observers question why it took so long.

The government agreed with the decision.

“I am confident that if we can get this legislation passed, then students will be able to complete their school year,” Ms. Wynne told reporters on Monday.

Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, called the decision “disappointing.” Noting that some of his teachers had supported Ms. Wynne in the past, he wondered how her actions now were building bridges after difficulties between teachers and previous governments.

“If anything, this is burning the bridges as you go,” he said.

Teachers will remain on picket lines until the legislation passes and they are ordered back.

For the affected school boards, it means figuring out whether to cancel or go ahead with final exams and what crucial parts of the curriculum need to be taught in the last four weeks of the school term.

“We already have been trying to put contingency plans together,” said Michael Barrett, chair of the Durham board.

The ministry has indicated it will waive the requirement that students spend 110 hours on each class to get the credit, Mr. Barrett said. Bigger structural changes such as extending school days would be harder, he said, partly because they would require a new round of discussions with teachers.

Students in Durham are beginning their sixth week away from school; Sudbury students have been off since April 27, and Peel students have been out of the classroom since May 4.

Education Minister Liz Sandals announced in Question Period on Monday that the government was bringing in the bill, called the Protecting the School Year Act, because it agreed with the findings of the Education Relations Commission.

“Our decision to bring in back-to-work legislation has not been taken lightly,” she said in a press conference. “We have tremendous respect for the importance and professionalism of our teachers just as we also respect the collective bargaining process.”

However, in justifying the legislation, she added, that the “needs of secondary school students … are paramount.”

Ms. Sandals called on the opposition parties to support the back-to-work bill so that students could return to class as early as Tuesday. The Progressive Conservatives sided with the government, but the NDP did not.

The decision effectively extends the strike for several days; the bill will not likely pass until Thursday.

Ms. Wynne said she was “disappointed” with the NDP’s position, and that the issue was not about “political wrangling.”

The new two-tier bargaining process, which divides issues into local and provincial tables, has clearly backfired on the government, which had praised the new process as “innovative” and said it provided a “common understanding of collective bargaining in the education sector.”

The back-to-work bill allows a number of days of mediation-arbitration. If no deal is made, the dispute will go to binding arbitration.

Asked on Monday about how this has affected her relationship with teachers, Ms. Wynne said that “this is not about a personal power dynamic between me and the teachers.”

“This is about the interests of the students and making sure that we get them back into the classroom,” she said. “I have had a long-standing relationship with teachers and support staff and school staff, and the entire education system.”

Former Liberal education minister Gerard Kennedy said the confusion around the new bargaining process and the fact that the end of the school year is near could “have less of an impact” on the relationship than at another time.

But Janet Ecker, who was education minister under Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris, said relationships worsen the longer the strike goes on – and more damage is done to students. She said Ms. Wynne is picking sides to find a resolution.

“I think most teachers want to be back in the classroom, and secondly, all parents and all students want to be back in the classroom,” said Ms. Ecker, now president of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance. “So this is one of those questions where you say to yourself: ‘Whose side of the net do I want to be on?’ And she’s clearly choosing parents and students who want to be back in the classroom.”

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, May. 25 2015, 10:57 AM EDT
Last updated Monday, May. 25 2015, 8:36 PM EDT