||Volume 17, Number 3, November/December 2004
Teachers make education a by-election issue
by Peter Owens
In late September, the B.C. Liberals announced that October 28, 2004, would be the date of the by-election in Surrey, to fill the seat vacated when Liberal MLA Gulmar Cheema stepped down to run, unsuccessfully, in the federal election. During the subsequent 28 days, the government announced more than half a billion dollars in spending projects. (See "539 million in promises.")
The strategy to secure a commitment to public education through the provincial election adopted by the 2004 BCTF Annual General Meeting called for teachers to participate in the upcoming provincial election to ensure that public education is protected and properly funded. Teacher locals decide the best way to protect public education in their riding. Some locals will run non-partisan campaigns to make public education a vote-deciding issue in the campaign. Other locals will endorse specific candidates in the election.
Surrey teachers knew in May 2004 that there would be a by-election within six months, but they had no idea when it would be called. The Surrey Teachers’ Association decided that it would endorse Jagrup Brar, the NDP candidate in the by-election, and began work immediately in case the by-election was called over the summer.
During the campaign, the Liberals did not want to talk about their record of cuts to education. They wanted to talk about the schools that were built in Surrey, without mentioning that they had been built by the NDP. The Liberals did not want to talk about the fact that there are 1,844 more students in Surrey and 133 fewer teachers since they came to power. They wanted to talk about the 77 teachers who were hired, without mentioning that they were replacements for retirees and teachers leaving.
The Liberals did not want to talk about larger classes, closed libraries, lack of textbooks, reduced services for students with special needs, or the unsafe conditions in oversized shop classes. Instead, they wanted to talk about twinning the Port Mann Bridge.
The STA contacted all the teachers who live in the riding. It called on teachers to work to elect an MLA supportive of public education. Mary Polak, a school trustee and the Liberal candidate, was a trustee in the forefront of banning three children’s books in 1997. She also claimed that there was "fluff" in the system as the Liberals started cutting the education budget in 2002.
Teachers helped canvass the riding. The STA published a special bulletin called Speak Up to keep its members informed about the election. STA members were interviewed in the 17 schools in the riding to find out what was happening to the riding’s students and schools. Their stories were recounted and circulated, some in a pamphlet delivered to each household. Radio ads ran on the Punjabi-language stations. The STA put up 20 billboards around the riding with the message "2,500 fewer teachers, 113 schools closed. Our students. Your kids. Worth speaking out for. Send Gordon Campbell a strong message."
Teachers from other locals worked alongside STA members, members of community organizations, and members of other unions to remind the voters of the Liberals’ record. Teachers also worked on election day, getting the vote out and serving as scrutineers at the polling stations.
On October 28, 2004, the people of Panorama Ridge overwhelmingly elected Jagrup Brar to represent the riding in Victoria. Brar took 53.5% of the vote (The Liberals had taken 60% in the 2001 election). Brar said the results are a warning to Campbell and the Liberals that "three-and-a-half years of mismanagement, scandals, cuts, and broken promises have come home to roost in one of their strongest ridings."
Brar was born and raised in India. His parents never had the opportunity to get an education, so young Jagrup saw education as his passport to a better life. Brar has two masters degrees. He is committed to a strong public education system that allows all children to achieve their potential.
Education became a major issue in the campaign, as witnessed by two front-page articles in The Vancouver Sun about teacher involvement in the electoral process. There is absolutely no doubt: Teachers made a difference in the campaign.
Peter Owens is an assistant director in the BCTF’s Communications and Campaigns Division and the editor of Teacher newsmagazine.