It has been said that bad things happen in threes. Last year Saskatchewan nurses, discontent with frozen wages and poor working conditions took to the picket line. Their focus was the Saskatchewan Government's lack of foresight in anticipating the long predicted shortage of qualified nurses to fill a rapidly retiring work force. Although the SUN (Saskatchewan Union of Nurses) was eventually satisfied with a pay hike and a promise to solve the nurses shortage, the latter has been left greatly neglected over the past year.
Last week a number of Saskatchewan farmers held a strike of their own at the Legislative buildings. Taking over the common areas and cafeteria, a sit-in took place, designed to gain the attention of the Saskatchewan Government regarding the future of provincial agriculture. In true prairie fashion, the protesters were not pepper sprayed, beaten and left for dead, but were instead given run of the house. Pizzas were unanimously donated and the Sergeant at arms, the chief of Legislative security, gave reporters the boot in order that the weary protesters could relax, play cards and sleep in peace. The honeymoon came to an abrupt halt early Monday morning as a perceived threat of violence was reason enough to toss the farmers out in the cold. They now are encamped on the front lawn; a small, loyal fraction of the crowds who turned up a week ago. A long stand off is anticipated. With Romanow waiting for the federal Liberals to cover the costs of a farm aid package, nothing is going to happen overnight.
The third storm is brewing within the Saskatchewan civil service. The Saskatchewan Teacher's Federation has recently sent a proposal to the Saskatchewan Government asking for a 13% increase in incentives as part of bargaining their overdue contract. These increases would include a competitive salary grid to curb the loss of teachers elsewhere, recruit new teachers, and install a comprehensive health plan. The Federation has publicly stated that they will not accept lesser increases. The government has said that they do not have the funds to satisfy the proposal and will not pay for the increase in pay and incentives.
The facts of this dispute, which stem from an increasingly more attractive workplace abroad, smells of the same stench that continues to contaminate the state of nursing in the province. Saskatchewan teacher starting wages are $4,000 less than those in Manitoba and Alberta. Calgary, the Saskatchewaner's paradise, is actively recruiting our province's educators as their demand for teachers has increased. Recruiters from across Canada and the States, and as far away as California, have been looking to Saskatchewan to find solutions to their own teaching shortages. Principals and Vice-Principals in similar sized schools are routinely paid double in Alberta as compared to Saskatchewan.
Does this sound familiar?
30% of Saskatchewan teachers have left the profession after 5 or less years with key reasons stemming from low pay, high stress and over-crowded classrooms. In addition to such an unusually high attrition rate, the baby-boomer retirement tide is about to hit the teaching profession throughout North America. As with many other professional fields hampered by baby boom retirement, it is an employees market. The number of jobs available to teachers in the next few years will be staggering. If the Saskatchewan Government does not act now we will see the rapid erosion of our education system, comparable only to our crumbling health care system.
A grassroots call, initiated by Saskatchewan farmers to not pay property taxes, may be the last slash to our education system. Property taxes pay the vast majority of a school division's costs, and in rural Saskatchewan that cost is burdened by our farmers. If the tax revolt is as substantial as some farm groups have predicted, the result could be catastrophic for small town schools. Even if the Government bows to incentive increases, they will not pay the bulk of this increase, the cash strapped school divisions will. Rural Saskatchewan will be hit worst. The only thing worse than a closed school in a small town is a closed hospital.
Education is fundamental to the future of Saskatchewan and Canada as a whole. The NDP government in this province, who gave us the gift of Medicare and were past leaders in the establishment of a provincial and federal safety net, have let us down. They have abandoned the very core of our social institutions leaving them dangerously close to collapse.
Three's a charm.