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Memories of Ontario’s ‘Common Sense Revolution’


January 18, 2022 Sam Hammond, CTF/FCE President

Looking back on the so-called “Common Sense Revolution,” led by then Progressive Conservative (PC) leader Mike Harris, two things are evident today. One, the revolution was devoid of any common sense, and two, the damage it inflicted along with the ripple effects it created continue to plague the province of Ontario to this day. 

The revolution’s legacy fractured public education and set the stage for decades of labour unrest. But history shows a different beginning and lesson of how bad intentions can tear a functioning system apart, leaving a trail of destructive consequences. 

From 1944 to 1998 there were five teacher union affiliates representing teachers, principals and vice-principles in Ontario. However, in 1997, growing solidarity among teachers resulted in the merger of two of these unions and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) was formed in 1998.

Unfortunately, at the same time that teacher union solidarity was growing, Mike Harris and his PC government struck a royal commission on learning that proposed a number of educational reforms harmful to teachers. They introduced and passed legislation that would change the landscape of education in Ontario for decades. The Ontario College of Teachers Act removed professional disciplinary functions from the OTF in 1996. Then came Bill 160, which halved the number of school boards, mandated ongoing teacher testing, transferred control of school board funding from trustees to cabinet, attacked collective agreements and allowed noncertificated instructors to teach some programs.
Numerous attempts to work with the PC government to make changes to Bill 160 failed, and on Monday, Oct. 27, 1997, teachers shut down every school in Ontario. For 10 days 126,000 teachers protested Bill 160 and held information pickets across the province. 

From day one of this protest, principals and vice-principals, who were members of the five teacher affiliates, supported teachers by joining them on the street. In response, the Harris government introduced an amendment to Bill 160 that removed principals and vice-principals from the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, from their unions, and stripped them of their collective bargaining rights.
Ontario’s publicly funded public education system has faced an uphill battle ever since, in search of common sense. ❚



The Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF) is created to serve the dual role of regulating teacher discipline and being an advocate for the profession. Ontario has five (eventually four) teacher unions that are affiliates of the OTF.


The Mike Harris government establishes the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), which removes professional regulatory functions from the OTF, drawing a line between professional advocacy and professional discipline, with OTF filling the former role and OCT the latter.


The government creates the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC), removing principals and vice-principals from membership in the teacher federations, prohibiting their right to unionize or be included in a bargaining unit.

Sam Hammond is the former president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

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