A Call for a Progressive Rebranding of our Union

by Kevin Bowers, ECA member, OSSTF Limestone District 27

The core mandate of unions has always been to protect people from the ravages of a marketplace that often exploits and harms for profit.  Global warming is without a doubt the single most daunting crisis on our shared horizon, and corporations and governments have failed in their roles to mitigate its effects and protect people and other life on this planet.  

Business, corporate and government leaders have spent a lot of Public Relations dollars on undermining the good brand of unions.  The media repeats phrases like ‘union bosses’ and frames unions as ‘special interests’ and ‘job killers’.  In the last decades this attempted union-busting PR strategy has been very effective in undermining unions, and union membership has decreased under this continual assault.

The present political moment offers a perfect opportunity for unions to rebrand themselves by taking on their core responsibility as progressive protectors of people and planet.  There is a void on the left side of our political culture, and unions could be moral leaders in this burgeoning progressive culture.  A fossil fuel divestment campaign would demonstrate the selfless leadership and moral clarity that unions need as both a ‘brand’ and an institution.  A commitment from unions to contribute to fossil fuel divestment would help undermine the PR campaigns that pit union bosses against jobs and the economy, and focus attention on the failures of unchecked capitalism and its essential responsibility for the ecological crisis of climate change.

Divestment isn’t perfect, but it is an acknowledgement of what society must do to keep fossil fuels in the ground.  For a three-minute explanation of carbon budgets, please watch this video.  For a much more detailed illustration of carbon budgets, check out this infographic. (Both are great resources for the Grade 10 Science curriculum.)

Our country and culture are straining to hear reasonable, sane voices that articulate a sustainable, empathetic and humane way forward when it comes to confronting climate change.  Unions have an opportunity to pick up the megaphone and speak for the disenfranchised and ignored.  They have the opportunity to speak truth to power, and to articulate the clear need for people to have a say in their own destiny, and in the health and safety of the planet.   

Will our union take the important first step in rebranding itself as a progressive leader and protector of people by pledging to divest from carbon?

OSSTF Candidate Responses to the ECA Questionnaire

We are pleased to share the responses from OSSTF candidates seeking elected positions at AMPA 2017. We thank them for their courage and openness and for taking the time to participate in our survey.

A list of candidates declared so far can be found here. There is the possibility of others running “from the floor”.

The three questions we asked were:

  1. Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada is not just about the legacy of residential schools, it is also about the sovereign rights of Indigenous peoples to govern their lands. Indigenous peoples are leading the ways towards an environmentally, economically, socially and culturally sustainable future.  As educators and members of OSSTF, we understand that we are on the frontlines of this Reconciliation process.As Union leaders, how can we push for progressive change in the Reconciliation process that is concrete and substantive?
  2. Climate change is a defining issue of our time and many are suggesting it will require mobilization and organization on an unprecedented scale. What can OSSTF do to proactively assist in climate solutions? And how can we use this opportunity to strengthen our union and the labour movement?
  3. Lastly, how might we use our internal investments, and investments of our pensions, to support meaningful progress on the above issues? What role might Divestment play in our leadership?

The full “Open Letter” along with the Questionnaire can be found here.

Candidate Responses

Paul Caccamo, Executive Officer Candidate:

  1. We have important work that we need to do both internally and externally.  Internally, I believe OSSTF takes their responsibilities to be advocates for social justice seriously and as a result we are already doing great things.  On a go forward basis, however, I believe we need to do more to expose our local leaders to the realities facing aboriginal people in our communities.  There is much misunderstanding.  At summer leadership 2017 I had the privilege of participating in the Aboriginal Blanket exercise.  This life changing experience should be mandatory for our leaders and is one example of an easy internal step we can take to enhance our understanding on this important issue.  The success of the reconciliation process will hinge greatly on the capacity of our communities to re-examine their belief systems while committing to approaching this challenge differently.  The proactive must be patient as this will take a long time.  Leading this change will require that organizations with a social conscious lead the way.  I believe OSSTF can be an institution that shares responsibility with others in providing this leadership.
  2. The climate change conversation is here to stay.  The debate on what we can do to be proactive is an important part of our formal conversations at the local and regional level and in many forums provincially, including AMPA.  Some may argue that we are not making progress as an organization and I disagree.  Climate solutions and their associated discussions and debates have become an expected part of our provincial conversations and this is a critical step that will serve as a platform for moving towards broadened conversations with forward thinking organizations like ourselves.  My sense is members are paying more attention to our need to be proactive about climate solutions than ever before.  Harnessing this progress internally and using it to develop partnerships with other organizations with progressive attitudes is the logical next step in insuring momentum is not lost.
  3. I have spoken with countless members about this issue over the last few years and there is a lot of misunderstanding on the divestment question.  I believe we do have an obligation to take a balanced approach to investing that includes investing in renewable energy and environmentally progressive opportunities. Members continually ask how we can insure pension strength in a divestment climate.  I do not have the answer to this question.   What I do believe is that it is important that we should be talking about it.  It is healthy for OSSTF/FEESO when we participate in and decide how shifting our traditional investment practices can be undertaken while still insuring the medium and long term investment returns are providing the stability that members demand.  Ongoing education will be the key to this.


Karen Littlewood, Executive Officer Candidate:

  1. Firstly, and quite importantly, I don’t identify as part of the FNMI Community.  I have a responsibility therefore to first ask members of that community how I can help before I take any action or assume I know what is best.  Failure to do so would perpetuate the colonial actions of old.  We can use the education specific recommendations from Truth and Reconciliation to guide our practice.  I made a point of having the poster of those points (as shared at Provincial Council) plaque mounted and hung in our office to guide our local practices.  This year, I lobbied OSSTF Provincial and our local public board to develop a traditional territory acknowledgement.  We worked to develop our own statement (in consultation) and now also have a beginning statement from OSSTF that we can use.  My employer continues to work on one for our school board. We need to continue to work with our indigenous peoples to develop a statement that is acceptable, keeping in mind there is no one correct answer but that such a statement may need to evolve.  The key to all of this is communication and a willingness to have conversations and to not impose the will of one upon another.
  2. We are fortunate working in the education community that we have access to resources as well as experts who can create new resources to educate ourselves and others.  We need to use all of our supports to gather the information we need, to educate our members who in turn can share that information with others.  We have a myriad of groups, committees and councils and if each tried to frame the work they do within the parameters of climate solutions, it would be a start.  We have many leaders amongst our membership and we need to avail ourselves of their talents to work towards solutions.  Our Common Threads projects can be effective tools for sharing and educating on a large scale.  We need to work to produce those resources but then we have to continue to promote them, and update where necessary. Change takes time and education and communication but most of all, persistence.  We can’t forget to use all of our resources and connections such as the greater Labour Community.  As a proud executive member of the Barrie and District Labour Council, I have face to face time each month with leaders from other local unions.  We must use these opportunities to promote our positive agenda.  Making green choices always has an impact. I have committed to having a green suite for AMPA and always try to make sure my dollars are spent close to home and in the most responsible way.
  3. As an Executive Officer, I wouldn’t have a direct role in the investment of our pension but as a leader (and a human being), I would have a voice to speak for this vital issue.  The OTPP has a fiduciary responsibility to its members but there really isn’t a point to being comfortable financially in retirement to the detriment of future generations.  We must also do the same lobbying for all pension plans, regardless of job class.  As a union of 60000, we have lobby power and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.  I have experience lobbying at all levels of government.  I look forward to the opportunity to continue to work for positive change.  Divestment may be the responsible option but can’t be a rush decision.  There are some tough decisions ahead for all of us.  I’m not afraid of tough choices and difficult conversations.  I’m not afraid to do research and weigh the options. My district (17 Simcoe) has a motion to encourage our partners (Educators’ Financial, OTIP, etc) to keep their purchases local.  I am proud to support that motion to try to effect that positive change.


Laura Drexler, OTF Governor Candidate:

As Union Leaders, we are to be the voice of our people. As OSSTF/FESSO leaders we can look to live integrity and solidarity we profess in our motto “Let us not take thought for our separate interests, but let us help one another”

This means leading the way in advocating for meaningful changes. It means holding leaders accountable to doing what they pledged to do, particularly in communication of said efforts. We are Educators, and in that role have a responsibility to model that character trait of reconciliation particularly when it comes to inclusion, recognition and rights. We aim to create a working and learning environment where principles of equality, equity, cultural diversity, social justice and environmental stewardship are lived out as we look to inspire the  next generation towards the future. We have daily Indigenous Land Acknowledgement Announcements in our schools.  We have opportunities to teach others about what is passionate to us. We can do more that bring the curriculum and policy to life. We have an opportunity and a responsibility as a Union to be a public voice advocating for others, especially those who are seeking the restoration of self autonomy and their legal rights to be respected with dignity and substance.   Dialogue such as this question of potential future leaders may be the first step in creating more awareness and motivation for all of OSSTF/FESSO to take initiative in advocating for those who need the support and strength of our voice.

2. Our collective action or inaction responding to Climate Change may define how much we value stewardship of the future and our most precious resource: planet earth.  Any global change requires a global population response.  We humans have never faced such a large scale exponential issue that requires a collective commitment to change. The progressive altered climatic patterns will indeed threaten our present quality of life and our future existence. This is not the result of living in an inter-glacial period, but the result of our choices to not prioritize stewardship of our environment.

OSSSTF/FESSO’s home page states our membership is more than 60,000 strong representing multiple job classes, districts and languages.  We are a snapshot of the population. We debate motions on environmental stewardship yearly at AMPA,  and in our locals.  We count the cost in the short term, and wonder about long term impact. I think we can do more than this. We can be intentional in our choices. We can be educated and promoters of truth in the environmental costs our footprint makes.  We can make choices and set policies that provide long term good for our planet. We can choose whom we align ourselves with in business policies and send the message that factors besides money matter.  This can be a proactive response, as can how we chose to conduct our business.

To my knowledge, most candidates running for election have opted for paperless campaign promotion. My hope is the rationale goes beyond the cost savings but for a reduction in generating waste that our physical environment will eventually have to absorb.

People are mobilized to action together, uniting with those who are likewise passionate for a cause or value.  We at OSSTF/FESSO have the potential to be a large example of mobilizing for more than our rights. We can mobilize for the rights of everyone; to live on a planet where someone else doesn’t willfully place their short term comfort or convenience over the rights of those who may not have the knowledge or power to make that difference.  We already unite for supporting the labour movement and can use these methods of mobilization for invite everyone to join together.  We have the volume of membership, the moral value of investing the future, and the means to encourage and invite others to move forward together for something everyone wants; a sustainable more habitable planet.  Why don’t we use our greatest strength; our people?

3. Our investments (both internal and in the OTPP) are how we speak about the future and what we value.  We value security and see money as that insurance. Do we value our short term future at the cost of the long term?

OTPP valuation models are based on 70 year projections.  We invest our dues and reserves in long term infrastructure or real estate or monetary holdings.

Often the popular topic of divestment is “will choosing non fossil fuel (non-renewable resources) mean a lower economic return?”  We collectively fear it will. We fear it may cost us our financial comfort, in a shorter term than us feeling the effects of the non-monetary negatives that come from those choices.

I simply don’t believe the co-relation between divestment from environmentally or socially responsible investments is mutually exclusive, nor as strong as we may fear. I’ve seen my own personal investments still generate a comparable return to other investments.  So even if we collectively value high and fast monetary return above other principles, maybe we need to take a close look at our investments.

Leadership can be the ability to speak up for those who will subsequently reap the benefits and consequences of present actions. I believe leaders have a responsibility to look out for everyone.  Leadership has the ability to influence others and set an example for all.

Delegates often decide on who they will elect into leadership based on their character and values.  I urge everyone to talk to candidates; learn who they are and what they stand for.  Meet them and see what they are willing to do on the various issues. Come to the OTF Governor suite. Have a cookie and talk further to Laura Drexler about what matters to you.


Stephen Helleiner, OTF Governor Candidate:

  1. The reconciliation process is just beginning. The greatest need at this point in the process in to ensure that all Canadians understand why this effort is happening. As educators we are the first and most vital part in the education process. As members of OSSTF we can take pride in being at the forefront of the reconciliation process and point to our efforts prior to the December 15th, 2015 release of the TRC final report to foster inclusive and culturally sensitive education through practical curriculum aids like the “Full Circle: First Nations, Métis, Inuit Ways of Knowing” Common Threads resource. We must continue to push forward with our education efforts and I support any and all efforts by our union or by OTF to provide current, sensitive and inclusive teaching materials. By educating future generations we can prevent the mistakes of the past from happening again.
  2. OSSTF has already tackled some environmental initiatives directly or indirectly. We have banned mass produced plastic water bottles from our meetings, we have limited our paper consumption through a greater emphasis on email and downloadable files (Greens, etc.), there has been a shift to limit the number of paper copies of Update and Education Forum and we have tried to implement a number of limited green cleaning and maintenance practices at 60 Mobile Dr. We have an Environmental Workgroup and I support its activities as they find new ways for us to conserve, preserve and renew our environment. We strengthen OSSTF by engaging our members in all of these efforts and by supporting them in their attempts to expand our practices to their Boards or community groups. The more engaged our members are the stronger we are and this applies to the wider union movement as well. As our efforts as unionists are recognized by the wider society our profile changes in people’s minds, building a more positive and proactive image of social concern and less of the “me first” union image. This shift will benefit all unions and should promote union membership as a socially and environmentally responsible choice.
  3. OSSTF has significant investments but a large portion of them are in long term, inflexible investment classes like real estate. With the limited assets available to us we can directly invest in “Green” energy companies, retrofit our real estate to incorporate green solutions, many of which have a high initial cost but provide substantial returns over the long term and work with union and labour partners to promote environmentally responsible activities and practices within our broader membership and indeed, within society as a whole. Pension investments are larger but much more constrained because they MUST find the best returns for investment over a long period of time. Encouraging green improvements within the real estate portion of   the OTPP would represent both social responsibility and long term investment return. Divesting ourselves of companies that are involved in less than desirable environmental practices is not a practical solution. Engaging and holding majority or strong minority positions in such companies allow us to direct them towards a more responsible path while ensuring long term profit for the Plan. If we have no stake, we have no voice in the boardroom where the decisions happen. Long term divestment from environmentally unfriendly companies will be inevitable as their long term returns will not support the Plan while newer, greener options will.


Parker Robinson, OTF Governor Candidate:

  1. As educational union leaders opportunities to support and move forward the reconciliation process should be at the forefront.  Our union can use the talent within to develop classroom resources, professional development opportunities and communication strategies that can be used by the members.  Also, our access to education stakeholders such as the Ministry of Education, Ontario Teachers Federation and the other affiliates provides an avenue to advocate for appropriate funding/resources for this process.   Finally, engaging with the indigenous communities throughout our districts to work collaboratively on educational strategies that they feel can benefit this process is key to having successful relationships between indigenous communities and frontline staff in schools.
  2. OSSTF has made good first steps to “greening” our union.  The Environmental workgroup continues to develop a pathway to help our organization confront climate change.   If we can harness the passion members have for this issue and strengthen the connections between OSSTF and the grassroots organizations working in our communities to push forward ideas that will address climate change progress will continue.  OSSTF and the larger labour movement has the ability to coordinate efforts to share information and reach large numbers of people.  This collective influence can be used to influence decision makers if the membership can be educated & organized to use this power.
  3. OSSTF’s internal investments and the investments within the pension plans must take into account the need to move away from fossil fuel based investments.  OSSTF should continue to use its voice to pressure OTPP & OMERS to find investment opportunities that are environmentally sustainable.  Green energy technologies continue to show strong growth and using our financial resources to support such companies can not only provide good financial returns but also have a positive impact on climate change.  OTPP does have a risk assessment framework that takes climate change into account but the plan must do more, and rigorously search out opportunities to move to investments and strategies that not only consider the return potential but the substantial costs of continuing in environmentally damaging companies.  Obviously there is a financial responsibility that the pension plans must strive for but the cost of continued investing in carbon-based industries is too high.


Other Responses:

Jo Dean, Vice-President candidate, tweeted:

“Thank you for raising these important issues but the responses are complex. Please come to my suite at AMPA to discuss.”

Martha Hradowy, Executive Officer candidate, wrote:

“Thank you for sharing your concerns, I am more than willing to share my thoughts on these issues at AMPA and look forward to meeting you. Please feel free to visit me my campaign suite or ask your questions during the Question and Answer period Saturday night.

Yours in Federation,

Candidates who did not reply:

Harvey Bischof, President candidate
Cindy Dubué, Vice-President candidate
Rob Gascho, Vice-President candidate
Earl Burt, Treasurer candidate
Mike Foulds, Executive Officer candidate
Michelle Teixeira, OTF Table Officer candidate
Kim Appel, OTF Governor candidate
Malini Leahy, OTF Governor candidate
Kelly McCarthy, OTF Governor candidate



Open Letter and OSSTF Candidate Questionnaire

The following letter and questionnaire was sent to all declared candidates for OSSTF President, Vice-President, Executive Officer, Treasurer, OTF Governor and OTF Table Officer. If an email address could not be found for a candidate, we contacted them through social media.

The deadline has been extended to March 6, since some candidates have said they did not receive it.

Again, our sincere gratitude for the engagement of the candidates.

To the Candidates seeking election to OSSTF Provincial positions at AMPA 2017:

Thank you for your courage to put your names forward for leadership positions. We appreciate your willingness to take the risk and participate fully in the democratic process of elections.

Just over two years ago, the Educators Climate Alliance (ECA) was formed and launched a divestment campaign aimed at pressuring the OTPP and OMERS to divest from fossil fuels. Since then, many conversations have taken place and much has transpired globally in a world-wide divestment movement.  Since Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline clash, the divestment movement has broadened to include the Big Banks that fund these destructive projects. At this point, we are not asking for divestment from the banks, but motions going to AMPA 2017 through OSSTF Limestone District 27 are asking again for divestment from fossil fuels. The motions can be found on the ECA website here.

“Indigenous Peoples are standing up to protect land, water and our collective future: not only for us but for the very existence of the human race.” – Crystal Lameman, Beaver Lake Cree

Examples of Indigenous movements and First Nations on the front lines:

RAVEN – Beaver Lake Cree – Tar Sands Trial

Elsipogtog stands up to fracking

Chard Métis Society VS TransCanada

Idle No More

Indigenous Rising

Will OSSTF stand with First Nations and all Indigenous Peoples and put people and the planet over profit?

We think that OSSTF  has the capacity to be a real leader in social justice and human rights causes. Our union has fought for the rights and interests of our members and has a history of advocating for progressive change on issues affecting broader society.

As a candidate seeking a leadership position within OSSTF, we would like to know your position on these issues. We request that you answer the three questions below before AMPA 2017. We will post these questions on the Educators Climate Alliance blog and share them on social media. By answering these questions you are agreeing to have your responses published verbatim on our website.

Our deepest gratitude for your participation! Please see the questionnaire below.

On behalf of the Educators Climate Alliance,

Adam Davidson-Harden (D27), Kevin Bowers (D27), Anik Hahn (D26), William MacCallum (D15)

Educators Climate Alliance Questionnaire

Please respond by email by March 3, 2017.

  1. Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada is not just about the legacy of residential schools, it is also about the sovereign rights of Indigenous peoples to govern their lands. Indigenous peoples are leading the ways towards an environmentally, economically, socially and culturally sustainable future.  As educators and members of OSSTF, we understand that we are on the frontlines of this Reconciliation process.As Union leaders, how can we push for progressive change in the Reconciliation process that is concrete and substantive?
  2. Climate change is a defining issue of our time and many are suggesting it will require mobilization and organization on an unprecedented scale. What can OSSTF do to proactively assist in climate solutions? And how can we use this opportunity to strengthen our union and the labour movement?
  3. Lastly, how might we use our internal investments, and investments of our pensions, to support meaningful progress on the above issues? What role might Divestment play in our leadership?

OSSTF AMPA 2017 #ClimateAction Motions

The following motions have been submitted to AMPA by OSSTF District 27. The Educators Climate Alliance thanks District 27 for agreeing to bring the divestment discussion once again to OSSTF’s annual meeting. We appreciate everyone for taking time to consider these motions.

  1. Moved that AMPA direct the Provincial Executive and the OTF Governors to request the OTPP and OMERS Board of Directors to direct asset managers to stop any new investment in fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 2 years, as determined by the ‘Carbon Underground 200’.
  2. Moved that Policy 10.7 be amended by the addition of a new subsection that reads: “It is the policy of OSSTF that the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP) and the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) should not invest in fossil fuel companies. Specifically, the OTPP and OMERS should stop any new investments in fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds as determined by the ‘Carbon Underground 200’ and should promote divestment until it is achieved.”
  3. Moved that Bylaw 9.5.2 be amended by the addition of a new subsection that reads:  “9.5.2.x  No part of the Internal Investment Fund shall be invested in fossil fuel companies.   9.5.2.x.1  Notwithstanding 9.5.2.x, the Internal Investment Fund shall divest from public equities and corporate bonds that contain fossil fuel companies, as determined by ‘The Carbon Underground 200’, by July 1, 2019.”

Last year a motion regarding supporting refugees failed to pass. In the last few weeks, the refugee issue has become very significant. We hope that OSSTF and affiliate unions will find a way to lead on this issue that will seriously impact the frontline workers in education in Ontario. Find our blog post from AMPA 2016 here arguing that OSSTF needs to take action. Below is the AMPA 2016 motion:

BE IT RESOLVED THAT AMPA establish a work group that will investigate ways to support the education and community needs of refugees in Ontario.

The work group will be composed of the following: a) three bargaining unit presidents/leaders, with an interest in human rights, as selected by the Provincial Executive from applications; b) one Provincial CPAC member; c) one Provincial Executive member, assigned by the President; d) the Secretariat Liaisons assigned to CPAC.

The Work Group will report to Provincial Council, as appropriate, and submit an interim report with recommendations to AMPA 2017 and a final report with recommendations to AMPA 2018.

Engagement vs Divestment: Questioning OTPP’s strategy

by William MacCallum, OSSTF Member

The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, in their annual report in April, 2016, acknowledged that the world is currently transitioning to a low-carbon economy. At the same time the Plan’s managers claimed that, from a risk management perspective, ‘engagement’ with fossil fuel companies is a better policy than divestment. At the annual general meeting, Bjarne Graven Larsen, Executive Vice-President, Investments and Chief Investment Officer, gave the example of his experience during his previous employment in Denmark, with the Danish energy company Dong being convinced to stop exploring for oil and invest heavily in wind turbines.

No similar examples of OTPP having this sort of effect on any fossil fuel company were given at the meeting, and it was stated that this ‘engagement’ philosophy was a long term proposition. This shows a staggering lack of understanding that time is no longer a luxury we have when it comes to climate change, and that the issue is bigger than the way they continue to try to frame it, as a ‘risk-management’ problem.

We at the Educators Climate Alliance say that if OTPP thinks that they can have more effect by “engaging” with fossil fuel companies, prove it. We expect to be informed specifically about what OTPP has accomplished to change the direction of fossil fuel companies at the next annual general meeting in April 2017. How many companies has OTPP convinced to pull out of the oil sands, or invest heavily in renewables, and where is the proof that it was the OTPP’s lobbying that actually caused them to change? Since the OTPP has stated that the world is currently transitioning to a low-carbon economy, it will not be good enough to claim, for example, that they invest in Shell, and Shell has announced that they will not drill in the Canadian arctic. These sorts of announcements are to be expected now that the world is transitioning to a low-carbon economy, so claiming these sorts of announcements as victories for their “engagement” philosophy would be disingenuous, unless proof is provided that the corporation acknowledges OTPP played a part.

Unless OTPP is able to convincingly demonstrate that their policy of engagement is directly influencing fossil fuel corporations to move away from the production of fossil fuels to burn, OTPP needs to publicly recognize, at the AGM in April 2017, that a new policy is needed. We suggest complete divestment from at least the 200 largest fossil fuel corporations.

To continue to argue that it is simply a risk-management issue shows a lack of courage and leadership. Even though the board of directors and senior management have acknowledged that they have duties beyond simply maximizing returns for pensioners, their actions speak louder than their words. These actions say that when our children and grandchildren realize in a few years that these leaders had the opportunity to help mitigate the effects of climate change sooner but chose the path of short-sightedness and selfishness instead, by framing the crisis as simply a risk-management problem, there will be no honest rebuttal open to today’s leaders of OTPP. Currently the only path to an ethically justifiable pension open to Ontario teachers is to take the commuted value of their pension prior to age 50 and invest it themselves.

Educators: It’s time to fight with everything we’ve got

comment by Andrea Loken, ECA member

As the front page of the New York Times reminds us once again, we are racing toward a cliff. Climate change is an educators’ issue and a union issue. It’s time that we spend some energy figuring out how we collectively become part of the solution instead of part of the problem (for example, by investing in fossil fuels). We may disagree about the best way to deal with the climate emergency, but we need to get serious about solutions. This needs to be a full-court press. And it won’t be painless.


Courage from the Earth Defenders at Standing Rock

By Kim Fry (ETFO), with Adam Davidson-Harden (OSSTF)

I took my two month-old baby on his first political protest in early Novembr 2016.   We marched with thousands of others from Queen’s Park to Nathan Phillips Square to stand in solidarity with land defenders fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The proposed pipeline threatens local water supplies and sites that are sacred to the Sioux First Nation. Authorities have been brutal and violent in their treatment of protesters in Standing Rock, a fact that has captured the world’s attention. The march in Toronto was one of the largest in recent years, and many teachers were there to show their support for the land defenders in North Dakota.

As a rule, teachers are a thoughtful, progressive lot. Most care passionately about their students having a bright future and are concerned about social justice. This commitment is in turn  reflected in teacher unions, including my own, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). Unions support teachers to integrate environmental stewardship into their classrooms and teaching practices, and many teachers strive to foster a love of the natural world in the children they teach. This has resulted in an explosion of interest in Outdoor and Environmental Education, and an emphasis on environmental responsibility in the revised Science & Social Studies curriculums.

The connection between environmental and social justice is interwoven in a new commitment to First Nations, Metis & Inuit education by the Ministry of Education, School Boards and Teacher Unions. ETFO created a designated staff position focused on Indigenous education, has developed cutting edge resources, and has endorsed the recommendations of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, whose reports have helped to shed light on the troubled and violent history and legacy of colonization and indigenous peoples in our corner of Turtle Island.   All ETFO events now begin with an acknowledgement that our work takes place on the traditional territories of one or many First Nations.

Teachers’ work for social and environmental justice has taken place during in a time of austerity, when most governments have been active in pushing for concessions in the form of wage freezes, cutbacks and other retrenchments in the public sector.  Teachers have had to stand up strongly to defend pensions, sick days and other hard fought social benefits that ought to be extended to many more hard working Canadians across the economy. Conservative media and austerity-minded politicians love to target teachers and often point at the strength and stability of the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan (OTPP) as a reason to punish teachers when it comes to negotiating our contracts. Teachers in this province work hard, help students to excel and deserve good pensions.

The teacher’s pension plan is financially strong, and is Canada’s largest single-profession pension plan with $171.4 billion in net assets. OTPP prides itself as having built “an international reputation for innovation and leadership in investment management and member services.” Given the large size of the pension plan, it is very influential and often impacts decisions made by other large pension plans. Unfortunately, the financial success of the OTPP is built off of many ethically questionable investments. There have been calls in the past for divestment and the pension plan continually reminds those calling for divestment that its purpose is to generate superior long term returns while minimizing and controlling risk. For the last number of years, I have joined teachers who care about climate change by attending the annual meeting of our pension plan (OTPP) and calling for divestment from fossil fuels. We have asked for OTPP to divest from fossil fuels.  The demands for divestment are steeped in science and an understanding of how critical the issue of climate change is. Fifteen of the sixteen warmest years on record occurred since 2001 and in a NASA press release from January 2016, it was acknowledged that 2015 was the first time the global average temperatures were 1 degree Celsius or more above the 1880-1899 average. Canada’s temperatures have risen 1.6 degrees since 1880. 2 degrees is considered the tipping point and many Scientists fear we have already gone well past this point and serious, catastrophic climate change is inevitable.

Our pension plan has billions invested in fossil fuel holdings. Officials with OTPP act as though this request is at odds with the very nature of a pension plan and goes against their fiduciary responsibility to build the most fiscally robust plan possible. However, our voices are increasingly hard to ignore or discount.  With the majority of the questions on the floor of the Plan’s annual meeting being about our substantial investments in the fossil fuel industry, it is impossible for the OTPP to ignore the concerns of the beneficiaries of the pension.  As a result, the Plan has now resorted to what can be accurately labelled a ‘greenwashing’ strategy.

At the last two Annual Meetings of the OTPP, pension plan officials have argued that ‘engagement’ with companies is a better solution than divestment.  This response is essentially a deflection – a classic ‘greenwash’ masking a strategy of non-change.  It is an endorsement of a ‘business as usual’ approach, along with the non-binding promise of ‘dialogue’ or ‘engagement’ with fossil fuel companies to ostensibly secure promises about good environmental intentions.   “Some members have called for us to divest from fossil fuel companies to make a point,” Ron Mock, Teachers’ President and CEO, during our 2015 annual meeting. “We believe we can be most effective by using our influence and engaging with companies and governments.” Engagement might work in some sectors, but when it comes to burning carbon, there is no way to do it better and more responsibly (unlike forestry or mining).  The climate movement accepts the fact that the world has exceeded its carbon budget, as the organization 350.org suggests in its work ‘Do The Math’.  Our planet has almost 2800 gigatons of carbon reserves the fossil fuel corporations would like to burn, but we can only use 565 gigatons if we wish to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points that would push us well past 2 degrees Celsius of global heating.

Nonetheless, the ineffectiveness of ‘engagement’ strategies with fossil fuel companies has been pointed out  by  teachers concerned about climate repeatedly, and dismissed. The pension officials claim they are pushing for more investment in renewables, but OTPP continues to invest billions of dollars in Exxon (a major funder of climate change denial), TransCanada Pipelines, Enbridge and other large fossil fuel companies.

When pressed to give examples of engagement with fossil fuels companies, OTPP officials say they encourage more investment in renewables, but are unable to offer specifics on what their engagement looks like. They dismiss the calls from the United Nations for divestment as an important strategy for action on climate, and erroneously claim that they cannot move towards divestment and maintain their fiduciary responsibility. And so the question remains, what does engagement look like?

This past spring, media began limited coverage of the protests being held by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The Dakota and Lakota peoples who live at the Reservation have a vast traditional territory that includes the land being proposed for the 1,100 mile pipeline.  The Tribe has strongly objected to its construction, which if built is slated to carry more than half a million barrels of crude oil across four states, potentially endangering numerous waterways and aquifers. The current proposal would see the construction of the pipeline less than half a mile from the Tribe’s reservation border, encroaching on sites of religious and cultural significance, as well as  traditional and ancestral lands. Throughout the summer the camp that housed the resistance to the pipeline attracted people from around the world who support the land rights of the Standing Rock Tribe, and their call to protect the sacred waters threatened by the pipeline.

When in late summer construction workers began bulldozing sacred sites and unleashing attack dogs on peaceful protesters, I contacted the OTPP and Enbridge.  The OTPP holds shares in Enbridge, which is a major investor and potential beneficiary of the proposed pipeline.   I asked both the pension plan and Enbridge if they would use their influence to intervene in this outrageous and violent situation. In response, the representative from Enbridge told me there was nothing wrong with what was happening to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, and OTPP refused to comment despite several requests. This casual disregard exposes the reality of the OTPP`s greenwashing.  Exactly how does the pension plan`s strategy of “engagement” work? There has been no public comment and my calls go unanswered. I can only assume they are waiting for this issue to go away.

In late October, armed soldiers and police using riot gear and military equipment cleared an encampment that was directly in the proposed pipeline’s path. Again I contacted OTPP and heard nothing. As I am writing, unarmed peaceful people are being brutalized with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Hundreds have been seriously injured. Thoughtful teachers will talk about how awful this is, and some may even show up to the next rally in solidarity with Standing Rock.  However, until teachers convince our unions (who also independently invest in fossil fuels) and our pension plan to stop investing in projects that violate human rights and destroy our planet, we are complicit in what is happening in North Dakota. Until we begin divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting that money in green opportunities, we are hypocritical. As teachers, I know we can do better. We can demand that we ensure the value and durability of our pension fund while moving us away from our dependence on fossil fuels and help to build a sustainable green economy that values human rights and respects the treaty rights of First Nations Peoples. Let the courage of the land defenders at Standing Rock be our touchstone as we make a bold leap towards divestment.