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Ontario teacher unions welcome new education minister in cabinet shuffle

Ontario’s new education minister is stepping into one of the largest and most visible files in government, which comes with a fraught relationship with teachers, though he is no stranger to politics or tough portfolios.

Todd Smith served as energy minister since 2021, balancing a need to vastly increase Ontario’s electricity supply, and boosting the supply of non-emitting sources of electricity generation, with stickhandling the thorny issue of natural gas, which increases system emissions.

A cabinet shuffle Thursday by Premier Doug Ford saw him swap jobs with Stephen Lecce.

Lecce served as education minister since 2019, through two rounds of collective bargaining with teachers and education workers, including strikes, a controversial-then-rescinded use of the notwithstanding clause to end one of those work stoppages, and navigating the school system through COVID-19.

He also either rolled out or announced updated curricula for math, science, language and kindergarten, and ended the practice of streaming in Grade 9, which funneled students into either applied or academic courses.

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But teachers have complained that many of those moves were done without enough consultation, and they hope the change in ministers signals a new, more collaborative path forward.

“(The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario) stands ready to work with Minister Smith after six years of being misled, dismissed, and undervalued by Minister Lecce,” the union wrote in a statement.

“We expect new leadership to bring a fresh perspective and a renewed commitment to investing in our schools.”

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the education file is a really tough one, but she is hopeful that Smith will be more open to formal meetings with her.

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“(Lecce) is a great talker, but I don’t know that we’ve actually had the action that we need in schools,” Littlewood said.

“When you consider the level of violence, and the lack of supports, and the number of challenging incidents that have happened in schools lately, I think a change might be helpful.”

Smith is a good choice in the file for that reason, said Carly Bergamini, a director at strategic communications firm EnterpriseHealth and a former Progressive Conservative staffer.

“He is a relationship builder, that is what he does best,” she said.

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“(He’s) very much an incredibly strong communicator, probably one of the strongest communicators in cabinet. I think he’s made very clear over the years that whether in Opposition or in government, that they can rely on him to move things along and kind of accomplish the government’s agenda.”

Smith also has an educator in his own family. His wife, Tawnya, is a vice-principal.

Bergamini, who worked at the legislature for the Tories both in Opposition and in government, said Smith is well-liked in caucus. Ford has also spoken highly of the jovial Smith on several occasions, noting that he refers to the minister as “Smitty.”

Smith has previously handled one of the toughest files in government, overseeing the much-maligned autism program. He was brought in to head up the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services after changes to the Ontario Autism Program made by former minister Lisa MacLeod left parents outraged.

He delivered the difficult news to families in a press conference in late 2019 that the revamped program was delayed, prompting many of those in attendance to burst into tears.

His previous role will intersect with the new one, as families of children with autism and other special needs have been pushing for more supports in schools. They are also pushing for answers in the death of a 16-year-old boy, who died, his mother says, after being found alone in a sensory room.

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Smith will not have to face the daunting task of contract negotiations, with deals secured under Lecce’s leadership that will extend past the next election, but he will have to do some heavy lifting on the child-care aspect of his new file.

Lecce had promised a new funding model for child-care operators under the $10-a-day program, as they have been warning that the current formula is unsustainable, and leaves some at risk of closure. It had been set to be communicated soon to child-care operators so that it can take effect next year.

Smith, who has two grown children of his own, worked in radio broadcasting before entering politics in 2011.

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