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Editorial: CUPE, government clash needs Gospel wisdom; bishops should deliver

  • November 3, 2022

It would be most welcome if Ontario’s Catholic bishops could quickly find a way to collectively call on belligerents in the Conservative cabinet and the Canadian Union of Public Employees to come to their senses.

Intervening in the clash of interests and egos threatening to shut down the province’s schools would at least emphasize the bishops’ concern for Catholic educators, students and their families. At a time when changing demographics are interpreted as a loss of the Church’s relevance, it would also be an opportunity to articulate the unceasing wisdom of Catholic social teaching for resetting the skewed standards of competing political interests.

The Catholic Register believes both CUPE and the government of Premier Doug Ford are behaving unconscionably right now. The wisdom of Roman Catholic social doctrine ranging over 130 years of secular upheavals would be most timely. At a minimum, it might cool the competitors’ intemperance enough to remind them that the positive path ahead is through negotiation, mediation, and even arbitration. Shouting and chest thumping might feel momentarily satisfying in the exercise of will to power for both sides, but ultimately, such triumphalism is exhausting and dangerous.

And as the great Pope Leo XIII reminded the world in his remarkable encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the Church has a major part to play in ensuring social equilibrium achieved by adhering to Gospel-centred justice.

“It is the Church that insists, on the authority of the Gospel, upon those teachings whereby…conflict can be brought to an end, or rendered, at least, far less bitter; the Church uses her efforts not only to enlighten the mind, but to direct by her precepts the life and conduct of each and all; the Church improves and betters the condition of the working man,” the pontiff wrote in the 1891 encyclical that became the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching.

Minds on all sides of the labour dispute certainly need immediate enlightening. A first positive step in that regard could come by CUPE leaders and their media cheerleaders dispensing with the propaganda that the Ford government is acting in unprecedented, even revolutionary, fashion by embedding the Canadian constitution’s override clause in its back to work legislation.

The so-called notwithstanding clause, or Sec. 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was deployed almost 40 years ago by the government of Saskatchewan to end a bitter 1986 labour conflict. It has since been used numerous times by various provincial governments. Former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall threatened its use as recently as 2017 to protect Catholic schools from loss of funding due to a court decision. 

It is misinformation, as well, to claim the override clause is legislative skullduggery imposed on the constitution to violate constitutional rights. Sec. 33 is part of our constitution. It is as valid as any other clause. It is fully consistant with Sec. 1 of the Charter that subjects its enumerated rights to “reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

The very basis of the Charter of Rights is that no right is limitless. The Charter begins from the precept that some limits to rights may be reasonably set through democratically elected legislatures. Its primary function is to test – and accumulate – jurisprudence over time so that political leaders and citizens alike have a shared understanding of what constitutes “reasonable” limitation.

Finally, it’s flat out falsehood to say, as the Globe and Mail has, that the override clause in the Ford government’s back to work legislation eliminates collective bargaining rights. The notwithstanding clause must, by law, be renewed every five years. It can be withdrawn at any time, as it was in the 1986 Saskatchewan case. For institutional leaders to blindly insist otherwise is to fan the flames of conflict. Such might delight certain activists but it must be rejected as anathema to Ontario school children, parents and, indeed, civil society.

That said, just because there is a right to do a particular thing does not mean that it is the right thing to do. It hard to see how any definition of “right”  can be applied to CUPE disrupting an education system in November that has barely staggered back to operability after the wreckage of COVID shutdowns. Neither is it possible, however, to see the Ford government as “right” in using its prerogatives under Sec. 33. To wave a loaded weapon and then offer to negotiate, as Education Minister Stephen Lecce did this week, employs a tactic of strong arm extortionists, not representatives of responsible government.

CUPE educational workers, too, have come through the shock and rawness of COVID and, like working people everywhere, face alarming, wage-devouring inflation and substantial threats to their standards of living. It is a measure of their prudence, not a sign of avarice, that they gave a strike mandate to the union that provides them legal protection and the means for gaining a just wage.

If CUPE leadership has shown recklessness in wielding its mandate so far, no less has the Ford government seriously abused the powers at its disposal to force a contract on the province’s unionized education workers.

Ontario’s bishops are not, of course, called as churchmen to negotiate away such secular divisions. But they are ideally positioned to place the Gospel-inspired teaching of the Church’s body of social teaching at the service of good sense civic equilibrium. Let us pray they can find the time.

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