Quebec strikes: Parents scramble as schools shut until Thursday; health care also hit

By Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — Morgan Gregory, a self-employed single mother of two from Montreal’s South Shore, says she spent the weekend preparing meals and doing laundry to clear her schedule for her daughters, who will be home from school for most of the week.

Gregory is among thousands of Quebec parents forced to make alternative plans for themselves and their children, as a provincewide public sector strike will keep schools closed between Tuesday and Thursday — and possibly for longer in some parts of the province.

And it’s not just teachers who are on strike this week. Stalled contract negotiations with public sector unions have led hundreds of thousands of workers — including nurses and other health-care staff such as orderlies and technicians — to hold overlapping strikes, affecting most health facilities.

Gregory said she’ll work in the early morning and at night, and use some of the tutoring tips she picked up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And I’m going to help other parents who I know are teachers, and I’m going to take their kids and maybe we’ll go for a walk … you know, make educative activities,” Gregory said. 

While members of the “common front,” a group of four major unions representing about 420,000 public sector workers, are on strike Tuesday to Thursday, the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec — which represents 80,000 nurses, licensed practical nurses, respiratory therapists and other health professionals — will be striking on Thursday and Friday.

Meanwhile, a separate union, the 65,000-member Fédération Autonome de l’Enseignement, or FAE, will be on strike indefinitely as of Thursday, resulting in the closure of several school boards across Quebec, including Montreal’s largest French-language school district — Centre de services scolaire de Montréal.

Education Minister Bernard Drainville told reporters last week the strikes should not be viewed by students as a vacation or break week, and that he hoped schools would provide kids with some work to continue learning.

Education unions were quick to react, telling their members that they do not have to give any homework to students during the strike. If strikes don’t impact the school system, FAE’s Mélanie Hubert said, then the purpose of them would be defeated.

“Obviously, the strike will penalize people, it is the very principle of a strike,” she said.

The common front, along with other unions, have rejected Quebec’s latest contract offer — a 10.3-per-cent salary increase over five years and a one-time payment of $1,000 to each worker. Unions haven’t said publicly whether they’ve made a counter-proposal, while their previous demands have included a three-year contract with annual increases tied to the inflation rate.

Doug Bentley, a father of two living west of Montreal, said there will be some juggling with one child in elementary school and another in high school, but he said there’s a lot at stake for teachers on the picket line, who are fighting for more pay and classroom support aides.

“It’s going to be challenging for all parents because having this three days in the middle of the week is definitely not going to be easy for parents,” Bentley said. “But you know, our family understands and our circle of friends understand why they’re doing it … there’s so much that goes into the conditions that aren’t being met.”

And while he feels solidarity with teachers, he said he hopes they aren’t on strike for long, especially as kids try to catch up from class time lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The fastest way to get them back (in the classroom) is the best solution,” Bentley said. “And that’s up to the government negotiators and the unions.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2023.

— With files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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