I am guessing that Stephen Leece is not known to many people in this province but folks should keep a sharp eye on him because, in terms of Ontario politics, he may be an up-and-comer.
Currently, Stephen Leece is Minister of Education in the Ontario Government. He is 36 years of age and has been a member of the Provincial Legislature since 2018.
When it comes to his job as Education Minister, he doesn’t mess around. He believes strongly that the future of this province and indeed, the entire country, depends on unlocking the full potential of our youth. His emphasis is on student success.
So, what is he doing about it?
For one thing, he wants to keep students in school. The unions for both secondary and elementary teachers are currently negotiating new contracts. This could lead to teacher strikes this fall or early winter. Leece wants to prevent that. He has said, referring to COVID-19 interruptions, “The greatest legacy we can leave for our children is three uninterrupted years of learning without the threat of a strike.”
To make that happen, the Minister has proposed that negotiations continue until late October, at which time, if no settlement has been reached, that outstanding issues be decided by binding arbitration. To their credit and depending on which media story you read, OSSTF, the Union representing secondary school teachers, has either agreed to this or agreed to seriously consider this. Other education unions, to date, have opposed it.
Provincial bargaining can be difficult. It can be protracting and complicated in trying to come to grips with differing priorities across the entire province and it often leads to Ontario-wide disruption. I sometimes wonder if the baby was thrown out with the bathwater when local school board and teacher negotiations were banned by the province.
In that regard, I am reminded of teacher negotiations during my first elected position, still in my twenties, as a Trustee on what was then The Muskoka Board of Education. We were in salary talks with Muskoka secondary school teachers. I was the chair of the board’s negotiating committee. We had legal counsel, and the teachers had their union representative, but talks at that time were directly face-to-face between the teachers and the board.
And the talks were not going well. We finally had a last-ditch marathon meeting which went well past midnight and finally, the talks broke off with both sides at an impasse. The prospect of a strike the next day was very real.
I stayed overnight in Bracebridge at what was then called the Inn at the Falls. Apparently, the union guy did as well, at about 3 in the morning, I was awakened by a loud knock at my door. There he stood with a bottle of scotch in his hand, and he told me that he and I were going to settle this matter before the sun went up!
And we did, although I cannot remember how much of that scotch was left. What I do remember is that at 9 that morning, we announced a settlement rather than the strike that was anticipated, and we kept kids in school. Those were the good old days and I guess we can’t do that anymore.
But I do think Stephen Leece was right to propose an end-game to salary negotiations that is fair to both sides and also would keep students in school, where they belong. I hope that eventually, all teacher unions will agree to that.
During his tenure as Minister of Education, Stephen Leece has insisted on a province-wide emphasis on the basics like reading, writing, mathematics, and learning that emphasizes life skills such as knowing how to balance your bank book. He has also mandated a return to cursive writing. He now requires all secondary school students to earn a credit studying the benefits of skilled trades as a respected and essential vocation and a possible alternative to university. He seeks closer liaison with so-called local boards of education to ensure that the province’s priorities are also theirs.
And now to address the elephant in the room and that is the matter of gender identification in children. Stephen Leece has said gender identification and the pronouns students use in school must involve parents. He stopped short of saying it must receive parental consent, but I think it should and I hope that the Minister eventually goes there.
Think how difficult it would be for a young person to portray one personification when in school and then hide it when going home. Think of the strain on that individual’s mental health. Think what the situation would be at home if the school allowed gender identification, but it was strongly objected to in the home. Parents simply have to be involved in these potentially life-changing issues for their children. Gender identity doesn’t stop at school.
And I believe that the vast majority of parents are the best people to make decisions for their children. An argument against this is that there are some bad parents out there and of course, there are. There are also those who believe involving parents will result in more homeless youth. But teachers are good watchdogs. They can usually see, especially in elementary school, when a child is having trouble at home, either as a result of abuse or lack of resources in the home. They can also spot a homeless child.
There are channels to deal with all of this through child protection agencies and it is their job to step in when children need to be protected from their parents. It is a teacher’s job to alert those agencies when she or he believes it to be necessary for the child’s welfare.
However, it is not necessary, in my view, to undermine the responsibility of parents for their children in order to deal with those whose parental skills are severely limited. Nor is it fair for teachers to take on the issue of gender identification without the involvement, if not the consent, of parents.
In my view, Stephen Leece is doing an excellent job as Minister of Education. He is a man of action. I know there are some who will disagree, but I admire political figures who stand by their convictions, make tough decisions, and take the bull by the horns when they need to. I think we will see a lot of this man in the years ahead.
I wish there were more like him.
Authors Note: This article is about Stephen Leece and his initiatives as Minister of Education. It is not about Doug Ford or Minister Clarke, it is not about the Greenbelt, and it is not about the Progressive Conservative Party except as they relate to education in Ontario. I enjoy and appreciate comments to my articles, for and against, but I would ask that you stick to what I have written and avoid going off on a tangent.
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District of Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has also served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently, Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc., the parent company of Doppler Online, and he enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!