Mark Behrendt never thought he’d register to spend 10 minutes telling the education minister directly why his legislation is troubling.
He didn’t think he’d be urging people to sign up for a committee hearing to voice their displeasure with the proposed reforms to public schools in Manitoba.
“In an unexpected way, a lot of people have” registered, the Winnipeg school teacher said.
“If they’re going to introduce such a significant bill, they need to listen to every single person that has concerns about it,” Behrendt said. “I’d encourage every person that’s willing or even reluctant to sign up to do it.”
Since Bill 64’s introduction in March, a groundswell of opposition has emerged. It includes lawn signs sprouting up in the thousands, pamphlets in the mail and virtual town halls from school divisions big and small. The means of protest have adapted because of restrictions on public gatherings.
As of last week, 280 people — eight to 10 of whom Behrendt have helped nudge — signed up to speak at hearings.
Behrendt said a number of those people are, like him, unexpectedly falling into activism over Bill 64, the public school reform that will dissolve English-language school boards and centralize decision-making with government. He spoke at his first committee hearing last month, on a whim.
Opposition from organized groups, grassroots
Some of the resistance is from organized groups, but it’s also grassroots — individual educators, parents and neighbours.
The 280 people registered for hearings may eclipse the 317 people in 2013 who signed up to speak (though only 238 people spoke when the time came) on Bill 18 — legislation which forced the accommodation of gay-straight alliances in school — and people still have several months to sign up for the public hearings on Bill 64.
Historically, most of the people who speak at committee are against the legislation.
“I want this committee hearing to be record-breaking,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said. “I want more people to come speak against Bill 64 that have ever spoken against any bill in Manitoba’s history.”
The NDP is training people to be activists. They created a digital tool kit, which outlines how people can strike up conversations and speak at committee.
“With the Pallister government’s majority and the amount of political capital that they’ve tried to push Bill 64 forward with, the only chance we have to really stop this thing is if there’s widespread public outcry against it,” Kinew said.
The party quickly noticed educators were upset, but Kinew said he recognized the need to mobilize parents and the community at large.
“We started to think about it in terms of activist training,” he said.
“If we have that person who’s opposed to Bill 64 engaged, can we have them kind of spread the word a bit more?
Educational assistant Mike Webster is someone who’s starting to oppose Bill 64. He spoke at an NDP town hall.
He’s worried by the push toward more standardized testing and the lack of mention around diversity and inclusion in the legislation, among other things.
“It’s important because my sons are watching,” he said of dipping his toes into activism.
The Manitoba Liberals were the first to proclaim their displeasure through lawn signs, with leader Dougald Lamont crediting the idea to a Morden-Winkler area school trustee. He argues the reforms shouldn’t go ahead without a referendum, and partisanship shouldn’t get in the way.
“That’s the one thing that should be able to unite people. This is a bill that blows up the education system, but nobody asked for that, the government didn’t run on it.”
Education minister challenging ‘misconceptions’
Manitoba Education Minister Cliff Cullen isn’t surprised by the uproar in some circles.
“It’s a vocal minority that we’re hearing from, quite frankly.”
He argues groups like the Manitoba School Boards Association and Manitoba Teachers’ Society are peddling misinformation. Cullen said the government is planning to address some of these “misconceptions” later this week online, which will counter against claims the province will close schools, cut funding and unique classroom programs will cease.
“I would love to have an honest and open discussion based on the facts around Bill 64. Unfortunately, some of these elements, these agencies are putting out fears. They’re preying on the anxiety that many Manitobans are feeling during COVID, I don’t think that’s right for Manitobans.”
Cullen said the legislation focuses on governance changes, but the province also seeks to improve student scores and shift more resources to the classroom, as evidenced by the BEST (Better Education Starts Today) strategy. Cullen said the opposition to the reforms have ignored those elements. The government is planning a campaign focused on the BEST strategy.
“We got into this discussion about K-12 because we want to improve outcomes for Manitoba students. That’s our goal, that maintains our goal, and we’re committed to that.”
For now, the public discourse is largely against the bill, which Melanie Janzen, an education faculty member at the University of Manitoba, said isn’t the fault of a botched communication strategy.
“I think they are getting their message out, and I think that’s exactly the problem,” Janzen said. “People are not pleased with the content of the bill writ large.’
Closing rural schools a centralized call
The proposed reforms also have opponents in rural communities, which historically lean conservative.
Jan McIntyre, board chair at Swan Lake-based Prairie Spirit School Division, believes the legislation will threaten rural education. She’s worried any decision to close rural schools will be left to a centralized board rather than local trustees.
Near Clearwater, Man., where she lives, a number of small communities within an hour’s drive are “small but vibrant,” each with a school.
“If I take an hour’s drive south from North Dakota to Langdon, I pass a series of ghost towns. There are no schools and the one school that you do pass was closed years ago and last time I was by, the windows were broken.”
The division held its first Bill 64 town hall in May, and meetings are expected monthly. The group will decide how to make their voices heard, if at all, McIntyre said.
“They’re the ones who, if they want to take action, need to take action.”