Court refuses to force teachers engaged in a political protest back to work
Government’s application for an injunction was significantly premature, Court held
In Ontario (Attorney General) v. Ontario Teachers’ Federation, the Ontario Court (General Division) refused to grant an injunction to force teachers engaged in a province-wide political protest back to work.
On October 27, 1997, public school teachers in Ontario walked off the job to protest the Conservative government’s plans to radically alter the education system. The government’s changes were set out in Bill 160, the so-called “Education Quality Improvement Act“. Two days after the political protest began, the government went to court seeking an injunction to force the teachers back to work.
The Superior Court’s decision
The Court refused to grant the injunction. It held that the application was “significantly premature”. There was no evidence that anyone had suffered irreparable harm or that the protest was yet jeopardizing students’ studies.
The Court also held that the balance of convenience did not favour granting the injunction. It noted that the government had disregarded the statute governing the teachers’ employment relationships, which gave the Ontario Labour Relations Board jurisdiction over allegedly illegal strikes by teachers.
The court also noted that the teachers’ protest was alleged to be in the public interest, and that this claim could not be easily dismissed:
The teachers have never engaged in a province-wide strike. They are typically law-abiding people. They are deeply committed to the education of their students, and they have behaved in an entirely peaceful fashion throughout the first week of the strike. Moreover, they believe that their strike is lawful, and, as I concluded earlier, there is a serious issue to be tried on that point. In that context, they say that when they point to the serious problems of Bill 160 they do so in the public interest. That assertion should not be dismissed out of hand, especially in light of the observations quoted above by [the Supreme Court of Canada] in RJR-MacDonald with respect to the availability of public interest arguments to both the Attorney General and those opposed to him in major litigation raising clear issues of public interest. The future of education in Ontario strikes me as such an issue.
In the end, the Court held that the Attorney General did not demonstrate that he was “entitled to the powerful and equitable remedy of an interlocutory injunction.”