The Political History of the AML, Part 2

 In Blog, Elementary, Media Literate Parenting, Recommended Resources, Secondary

by Derek Boles

On the provincial political front, the Liberal government earned the enmity of Ontario teachers by re-organizing the Teachers Pension Fund, the second largest in Canada. Among other changes, the Peterson government introduced an increase in teacher contributions to the fund. The militant Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation decided to encourage its members to vote strategically in the next election, targeting legislators in key ridings. They hoped that the resulting minority government would guarantee that any educational reforms would be vetted by an all-party committee of sitting members of the provincial legislature. In theory at least, the government would be less likely to impose arbitrary and unnecessary educational reforms on Ontario classrooms.

The strategic voting ploy worked better than expected and in 1990, the New Democratic Party of Ontario formed the third provincial government in five years, with Bob Rae becoming the new premier of  Ontario. Teachers looked forward to unprecedented cooperation and influence in education as the NDP power base was closely aligned with labour and the teachers’ unions had played a key role in getting the NDP elected. The teachers’ honeymoon with the NDP didn’t last long. As the economic recession of 1991 hit Ontario hard, the government couldn’t deliver on their campaign promises and began to implement funding cutbacks.

The NDP’s “Social Contract” was implemented and teachers found their salaries rolled back through the infamous “Rae Days” when schools were shut down for several days each year and teachers were forced to forfeit their salaries. At the end of their mandate, the NDP would be remembered primarily for the Social Contract and for introducing casino gambling to Ontario, a dubious legacy for a government that positioned itself on the Left. The NDP’s meddling with already negotiated collective agreements would alienate labour, split the union movement and establish a dangerous precedent for the more ruthless right wing government that would follow them into power.

The NDP’s education reform policies took a decidedly reactionary bent, especially when it came to curriculum and classroom funding. This government devoted most of their curriculum reform energies to satisfying conservative education critics who believed that the school curriculum was too undemanding and that there needed to be a back-to-basics reform initiative. One pundit referred to the NDP as the violin government: held up by the left and played by the right. This government established a Royal Commission on Education; and in 1994, the AML delivered a comprehensive brief to the Commission highlighting the importance of media literacy in the curriculum. The brief was ignored when the Commission’s report was published.

However, media literacy was still in the curriculum and the AML steamed ahead by hosting two enormously successful media literacy conferences at the University of Guelph, about fifty miles west of Toronto. The New Literacy Conference in 1990 and Constructing Culture in 1992 attracted hundreds of media literacy teachers from around the world, cementing the AML’s reputation at the forefront of the international media education movement. The second conference alone had 525 registrants. These conferences were validated by the presence and participation of international media educators who had inspired and influenced the Ontario media literacy initiative, especially those from Great Britain, Scotland and Australia.

Following the second Guelph conference, the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations (CAMEO) was formed in 1992 primarily due to the initiative of John Pungente SJ, the head of the Jesuit Communication Project based in Toronto. Pungente had traveled the world, establishing international contacts with media educators and his involvement in the AML gave the organization a truly global perspective and influence. CAMEO eventually tied together the provincial media literacy organizations that formed in each of Canada’s ten provinces.

AML executive members were also responsible for teaching the Media Specialist teacher upgrading courses at the University of Toronto. By 1993, 175 teachers had successfully completed these courses but the university decided to end them owing to faltering demand. Teachers were less inclined to enroll in these courses as the fees had escalated substantially because of government cutbacks and the curriculum spotlight had shifted towards computer technology courses. At the present time, only the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa offers this course.

AML members traveled the globe, participating in conferences and providing inspiration to what was becoming an international media literacy movement. In their turn, media educators throughout the world visited Ontario teachers and classrooms. When Ontario’s leadership in media education was validated by an American television network as ABC’s World News Tonight came to Toronto to film an American Agenda segment on media literacy in the classroom, the irony was not lost on Canadian media teachers.

The rapid changes in the Ontario provincial government meant ongoing chaos in education as each government tried to put its stamp on education and classroom teachers had to deal with a bewildering array of new curriculum initiatives. There has always been a misguided notion that a government can shape culture by changing education and NDP social engineering zealots couldn’t resist the opportunity. Under this government, the Ministry of Education released the Provincial Standards: Language: Grades 1 through 9 and The Common Curriculum: Policies and Outcomes: Grades 1 to 9. In the initial drafts of these documents, no mention was even made of media literacy in the learning outcomes or “strands” that formed the core of these guidelines. Following more successful lobbying by the AML, the Ministry agreed to include curriculum strands for Viewing and Representing. AML vice president Rick Shepherd was commissioned to write these strands in 1994.

A third AML international conference was postponed in 1994 as the prevailing educational funding climate was not conducive to hosting an expensive event. Money was getting tight in the Ontario education system as evidenced by salary freezes and rollbacks as well as an escalating number of strikes and work-to-rule campaigns. Teacher apathy was also becoming an impediment to the effective integration of media education into the English curriculum. Teachers were feeling overwhelmed by the numerous curriculum changes and the increasingly onerous written and oral reporting that was required of them in the name of accountability. A decrease in government funding to school boards meant that teachers were being asked to do more for less and professional development funds were, as usual, the first victims of educational funding cutbacks. The AML maintained its leadership in the professional development field by running comprehensive but less ambitious Media Literacy Summer Institutes at Ryerson Polytechnic University’s downtown Toronto campus in 1994, 1995 and 1996. The Institutes each attracted about 50 teachers, mostly from southern Ontario.

In 1992, in his essay Surviving Education’s Desert Storms, AML president Barry Duncan notes that “In Ontario, media teachers have no reason to become complacent. Given the change of governments and the shifting trends in education, we are always vulnerable to attack.” Duncan’s words would come back to haunt us after the election of Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative Party in 1995. Harris campaigned on a right-wing neo-conservative agenda and appealed to voters who were weary of the high taxes introduced by the previous two governments. He believed that government was far too intrusive in the lives of most Ontarians and he promised to reverse the social engineering policies of the NDP government. Harris singled out welfare recipients and big government as the root of Ontario’s economic problems. Dubbed “Chainsaw Mike” and determined to present himself as an Ontarian version of Newt Gingrich, Harris promised a 30% tax cut while ensuring voters that no cuts would be made to health, the arts, or education. A telling sign was the absence of the word progressive on campaign literature promoting the name of the party. With the election of this government in 1995, not only would teachers be marginalized, but teacher’s unions were demonized by the premier of Ontario as the root of many problems in the education system.

According to John Ibbitson, in Promised Land, Inside the Mike Harris Revolution, Harris dropped out of Waterloo Lutheran University after one year. After drifting for a while, he decided to go to teacher’s college in North Bay because it offered “free tuition, free books, no dress code, and there were 500 people there and 400 of them were women.” Harris spent a couple of years teaching math and science to Grades 7 & 8 but he resented the seniority system that ensured that older teachers would get promoted ahead of younger ones. By some accounts, he was a member of the “3 o’clock track team,” one of the first out the door when classes were over. After his brief stint in the classroom, Harris decided that he preferred working for his father to the rigors of education. From the family business, he moved into politics and served on the local school board for several years, an experience that undoubtedly sharpened his hatred of teachers’ unions.

The new Minister of Education was John Snobelen, a high school dropout turned horse farmer and waste management entrepreneur. Snobelen’s primary job would be to oversee massive funding cutbacks to school boards so that his boss could pay for the promised tax cuts. Snobelen wore Tony Robbins suspenders and spouted new-age business babble. He told a meeting of Ministry officials that it was necessary to “invent a crisis” in education to justify these funding cuts but that his “toolkit” would provide the means for school boards to accomplish the cuts while not penalizing students. The “crisis” turned out to be the usual mantra of the far right (i.e. kids aren’t learning the basics; teachers are lazy, incompetent and overpaid, etc.) and the “toolkit” turned out to be a lot of hot air.

Whatever the rhetoric, right-wing educational reforms are almost always about saving money through reductions in funding. Health and education are the most expensive programs funded by provincial governments. Governments that tamper with health funding run a greater political risk than they do with education cutbacks since it’s only voters with children in school that are immediately and visibly affected by these cutbacks.

Inevitably, Harris’s educational reforms would generate the biggest crisis of all. It would be a mistake to assume that Harris and Snobelen had actually articulated a vision of educational reform that would guide the province through these changes. The changes initiated by this government were based on a hodge-podge of neo-conservative thinking from Canada, the United States and Great Britain. The Tory education platform closely followed the recommendations of the Ontario Education Reform Network, a lobby that has imported an American right-wing critique of public education. Snobelen appointed Bill Robson, the spokesperson for this group, as chair of the powerful and unelected Provincial Parent Advisory Council, thus ensuring a direct link between corporate opinion and education policy. The Tory education platform is also consistent with the views of the British Columbia based Fraser Institute, one of Canada’s highest profile right wing-federal lobby groups, which has increasingly turned its attention to education policy.

Educational reform in Ontario was also fueled by the policies of the Margaret Thatcher Conservative government of Great Britain. During her eleven-year reign, Thatcher had constructed more adolescent prisons than she had schools and welcomed private enterprise into the educational system, both priorities that the new Ontario premier embraced with enthusiasm. Shortly after the Harris government was elected, Harris’s advisors met with Thatcher’s educational reformers in a meeting north of Toronto and Ontario education was open for business.

Among the educational reforms would be the compression of Ontario’s high school curriculum from five to four years. The abolition of Grade 13, or Ontario Academic Credits as it’s been known for the past fifteen years, meant a much more crowded curriculum and this did not bode well for the future of media education. In the planned “back to basics” curriculum, the AML was concerned that all references to media literacy would be dropped, not only in the core English courses but the optional fifth credit in English that high school students were required to complete before finishing high school. The Ministry countered that media hadn’t been eliminated but repositioned in other subjects like Art. We may never know the real reasons for this initiative but we suspect that they were composed of a combination of the issues listed at the beginning of this article.

The strength of media education in Ontario for the past decade has resided in the provision for a fifth credit in English. While media literacy components are mandated in core English courses, many classically trained English teachers simply didn’t have the time, interest or background to teach the subject in any depth. The fifth credit in English permitted committed teachers and students to come together and generate the most exciting media literacy activities.

Sources within the Ministry informed us that Snobelen had mused aloud that media literacy did not promote a healthy business climate in Ontario classrooms. In December of 1995, a letter spelling out in great detail the value of media literacy was sent to Snobelen by the AML, though we never received any acknowledgment that he had read it.

An unexpected boost to media literacy initiatives in Canada came in 1996 from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, the federal regulatory agency overseeing the communications industry. Chaired by Keith Spicer, the CRTC released its long awaited report on violence and the media. While press coverage of the report focused on the controversial V-Chip, Spicer stressed the importance of media literacy throughout the document.

Meanwhile the Canadian Jesuits had informed John Pungente that they would no longer fund the Jesuit Communications Project as of 1996. The resourceful Pungente scrambled for years to find alternative
sources of funding and the JCP almost closed as the deadline approached. At the eleventh hour, Pungente engineered an alliance with the appropriately named Alliance for Children and Television and was able to obtain funding from corporate media sponsors.

By 1997, it was official that Harris’s ideological make over of Ontario education included a revision of the curriculum. The government threw its door open to the aforementioned right-wing educational reform groups and it became obvious that the only stakeholders it was prepared to listen to were those that shared its right wing ideology. Shortly after his election victory, a reporter asked Harris what was the last Canadian book that he had read. Stumped for an answer, he blurted out that he had read the book Mr. Silly to his children. The Premier further mused about the uselessness of liberal arts and how universities had to be practical and train their graduates for the job market. This bias was translated into policy in early 2000, when the government announced a new funding formula to restrict subsidies to universities that
specialized in liberal arts.

Ironically, under this government, media literacy is more needed than ever. The Harris government constantly uses misleading and inaccurate statistics to justify their educational policies. Thinly disguised political propaganda masking as public service announcements saturate Ontario media advertising. As the financial noose tightens around Ontario schools and the educational system continues to deteriorate, the public is continually harangued by advertising claiming that all these cutbacks are necessary because the government cares about children. The Harris propaganda campaign relentlessly vilifies classroom teachers, their unions, school boards and educational bureaucrats as the root cause of what is wrong in public education. It’s obviouswhy the Conservatives are not enthusiastic about media education as it could expose their shameless use of the media to advance their right-wing ideology. As AML executive member Chris Worsnop wrote in 1997, “No government, let alone the present one, is really interested in producing a media literate populace capable of thinking and making decisions for itself. It is self-defeating for politicians to want the citizenry to have a critical understanding of the political process. We are perhaps naive in expecting officialdom to assist us in making students critically autonomous to the extent that they could become well-informed thinkers, consumers and voters.”

The NDP’s Transition Years initiative was dropped when the Conservatives came to power and, along with it, Shepherd’s media literacy outcomes. While it is not uncommon for a government to reverse policies established by prior governments, Harris was essentially dismantling an educational system that had been established by his own party during their previous four decade reign of Ontario. Sympathetic individuals within the Ministry of Education and Training kept us informed as to what was happening, though the degree of secrecy was unprecedented. A University of Toronto professor was retained by the ministry to write a background paper on English curriculum in late 1996. The AML provided input to this report and the result seemed to indicate that media education was secure. Alas, the ministry quickly distanced itself from this report after the professor reportedly refused to rewrite his paper to bring it more in line with government ideology, including the elimination of all references to media education. A second report was hastily commissioned, with the AML again providing input, but the result was completely unacceptable to advocates of media education. While there was limited, if any, opportunity for input from stakeholders deemed unsympathetic to the government agenda; the curriculum revisions accommodated direct input from Conservative caucus members, legislators with no background in education. We were informed that a number of these legislators were enamored with the views of right-wing education critic E.D. Hirsch in his notoriously reactionary book Cultural Literacy, an inspiration to social reformers who want to turn back the clock on educational advances of the past several decades.

An unexpected blow to the cause of media education was the apparent withdrawal of support from the Ontario Council of Teachers of English. One of the ministry’s advisors was a former OCTE president, John Borovilos, who claimed that the new English requirements were too demanding and there was no room in such a crowded curriculum for frills like media literacy. This position rankled as an unexpected about face. One of the most successful OCTE conferences ever was held at the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto in 1989 and AML members were invited to present a number of workshops. CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge was a keynote speaker. An issue of their magazine, Indirections, was devoted to media literacy, as was a double issue of English Quarterly, the national publication of the Canadian Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts. The final issue of Indirections published by OCTE highlighted a debate over whether or not media literacy belonged in the English classroom.

In late 1997, Harris’s saber rattling against teachers escalated into full-scale warfare. Among the many changes he had introduced, the most contentious among teachers was a requirement that they teach an extra period each day. Lesson planning, preparation time, supervision, professional development and consultation with students, parents and colleagues didn’t count towards fulfilling professional obligations and were not considered to be a legitimate use of teacher time. Teachers were so incensed that they called an illegal two-week strike in the fall of 1997, and went back into the classroom only when a temporary coalition of teachers’ unions collapsed.

In order for the Conservatives to achieve their education reforms, they needed not only to neutralize teachers but also to take on duly elected school boards right across the province. Many school boards were prepared to ignore the more drastic elements of the Tory plan, especially in large urban centres like Toronto and Ottawa, which weren’t bastions of Conservative political support and which would be most adversely affected by the new policies. Since Ontario school boards had the individual power to raise taxes, negotiate collective agreements and set curriculum, the boards clearly represented a threat to Conservative hegemony. Abolishing the boards outright, as had already been done in New Brunswick, was considered politically risky, so the Tories introduced legislation in early 1997 that would effectively neutralize all of Ontario’s duly elected school boards. The number of boards would be reduced from 129 to 66, the number of trustees would be reduced from 1,900 to 700, and the boards would no longer have the power to raise taxes in order to make up for reduced government funding. Furthermore, the stipend for elected trustees was capped at $5000 a year, ensuring that only candidates with independent or corporate financial resources, and thus more receptive to Conservative policies, would run for office. This would effectively spell the end of the era of independent and activist trustees who had turned the position into full-time jobs and who weren’t merely content to rubber stamp government policies.

It’s important to note that while all of this was going on, the AML continued its leadership role, publishing Mediacy, attending international conferences, sponsoring events for teachers in the Toronto area and providing in-service professional development opportunities for teachers all over Ontario. Meanwhile interest in media literacy snowballed across Canada and, by the fall of 1998, media education was a mandated part of the curricula in each of Canada’s ten provinces.

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