By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
PELEE ISLAND, ONT. — Across Ontario, 126,000 striking teachers are picketing in public squares and chanting slogans about government unfairness.
But here on Pelee Island – the tiny Lake Erie isle that houses 250 people, a few thousand pheasants, and one lonely school – silence is golden.
“It’s best we be left alone,” said Ron Tiessen, curator of the Heritage Centre Museum here. “I want you to understand, we’re not unfriendly people. Any other subject, we’d say come over and have a beer.”
Mr. Tiessen is married to one of the island’s three teachers, none of whom are willing to talk to the press about the provincewide strike that has shut down the Pelee Island Public School, a three-room schoolhouse on the island’s north edge.
Normally, 35 are students here, from kindergarten through eighth grade. Older children make the 1.5-hour trip to the mainland every week to attend Kingsville High School. But none have gone to school since Friday, the last session before Ontario’s teachers went on strike Monday, shutting down school for 2.1 million children.
On the island, teachers sent extra work home with students on Friday, in the hopes that students might keep up with their studies throughout the strike. As a result, fifth-grader Nathan Stankov, 10, spent his Tuesday working on multiplying three and four-digit numbers. But when he was done, Nathan helped his parents with their daily work. His mother, Vicki, delivers the mail – it takes a little over an hour – and his dad, Shane, is releasing pheasants for the gaggle of hunters who will invade the island this week for the annual hunt.
As might be expected, Nathan doesn’t seem to be missing school much.
But while children find ways to spend their free time, other residents worry about how the strike will affect the island’s educational system. And most don’t want to talk about it.
Labor conflicts can ruffle feathers in any community, but on the island, where the biggest tourist attractions are a boulder, some grooves in the ground, and the ruins of the second oldest Canadian lighthouse in Lake Erie, many are afraid that any comment could anger a significant part of the island’s population.
The strike is a response to proposed government changes that would centralize the structure of Ontario’s educational system. But some parents here feel that the island is treated poorly by the provincial government.
The Pelee school, which used to have its own school district, is run by the mainland-based Essex County Board of Education. Government officials are trying to unite the districts of Essex and neighboring Windsor County, which some say might make the island’s needs seem even less important to government.
“They don’t give diddly squat about little towns like us,” said Tammy Williams, whose son Nathaniel is in kindergarten at the school. “They don’t hear us now. We’re the forgotten school.”
If, as the government proposes, Ontario’s educational system becomes more centralized, Ms. Williams fears places like Pelee Island will become even more ignored.
“If this was Windsor or Kingsville or Leamington, that probably would have been taken care of immediately.”
Ms. Williams recently moved back to Pelee, where she grew up, in part because of the small size of the school. In Windsor, where Na thaniel used to live, “he’d be in a class with 35 kids. Here, he’s getting one-on-one attention every day. It’s the best place there is for kids like him.”
Ms. Williams, who predicts the strike will last until Christmas, said the island’s small size shouldn’t stop people from speaking their minds on the strike. “I can’t believe they won’t talk,” she said. “This is our kid’s future that they’re talking about. The government is messing with the future, with tomorrow’s prime minister.”