Union president touches on teaching labour issues in final year

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Fraser Oliver, Northwest Territories Teachers Association president will wrap up his leadership role next June on behalf of the NWT’s largest teachers’ union.

Northwest Territories Teachers Association president Fraser Oliver speaks to media in 2017 about reducing teaching hours in the NWT. Oliver is entering his last year of four years in the role and says there are ongoing challenges around retaining teachers and reducing violence in the classrooms. 
NNSL file photo

Oliver represents 800 members in the territory based on the union’s bylaws, the president can only serve a maximum of two two-year terms. As he prepares to leave next June, he said in an interview last week that two issues that have become most apparent teaching labour issues in the NWT have included incidents of violence in the classroom and teacher retention.

“We are finding violence in the classrooms is on the rise,” he said, noting the union sent a survey out to members last spring. While he is still reviewing the data collected with his executive, it is clear it is a new phenomenon and as a health and safety issue, it has to be better understood.

It takes various forms depending on the level of grade, he added.

“It seems to be that in the primary grades there are incidents of scratching, biting and kicking and then stabbed with pencils, while in the older grades you see more intended physical attacks.”

Oliver noted one incident last spring where a teacher member in one school in a later grade who was attacked from behind and off work as a result for several weeks, although not hospitalized.

“Charges were laid to the RCMP and it is running through the courts,” he said.

“It is a new phenomenon and it is increasing, absolutely. There are more students coming in younger grades with mental health issues and parents don’t know what to do about it either.

It is an ongoing issue that parents and administrators continue to deal with, but the GNWT has been responsive by hiring counsellors in the schools, he said.

“I think there will be successes on this issue, but it just won’t be a one day fix ”

The other issue Oliver discussed was the NWT’s struggle to retain teachers.

“We find that teachers are coming to the North but sometimes they are not staying,” he said.

Often this is tied to affordable or adequate housing as in small communities, while teachers may enjoy their positions, if they want to raise families, there are not a lot of options, depending on the location.

This also matters because the longevity of teachers in communities strengthens the communities themselves, he said.

“When a community and elders and the students know their teachers for many years, the trust starts to build within the community, starting with the teacher and the student,” he said. “That bond or that rapport leads to credibility in a teacher in being able to lead a student and doors opening for them.

“When a teacher only lasts a year, they are not building that trust and bond.”

Collective agreements

The NWTTA has three collective agreements that will expire in July 2020 on behalf of the teacher membership that work for the Yellowknife Catholic School board, the Yk 1 Education District or the Government of the Northwest Territories. Over the coming year, a new president will be elected and slowly worked into replacing Oliver, but he said he has found it effective in his role to be non-antagonistic and to work collaboratively with employers to solve teachers’ labour issues.

In fact, he is quite complimentary toward the eight superintendents that serve the NWT’s school boards and Caroline Cochrane, Minister of Education, Culture and Employment and said he believes most want to make a difference in the lives of students, no matter the side of the table they serve.

“One of my beliefs is that while I can be confrontational, I really believe that collaboration with superintendents and (the GNWT) department of education, culture and employment and working on solutions to our teacher problems is a far better and more productive approach for out teachers and students,” he said. “It is much better than storming to the media and demanding this and expecting that and yelling and screaming.”

In the coming months, the union will be consulting with members before negotiations start early in the new yea but there will be a focus on ensuring that the next agreement will be predictable and stable. He noted that a decade ago collective agreements were only two years, but the last few rounds have been four-year terms.

Oliver is a long-time northerner having come from Cape Breton as a teacher in 1983 and raising a family over those 37 years. He is aiming to return to teaching, his real love, which he did for many years before leading the union.

“To be honest, I still feel young,” he said with a chuckle. “I would love to go back to St. Pat’s high school and finish teaching there and work two more years. The love of teaching is why we do it and I’m still passionate about it. I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

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