For nearly 60 years, Ontario’s New Democrats have purported to represent the voices of average working people when decisions are made at Queen’s Park. As such, the party has had a special relationship with the union movement — so much so that unions actually have constitutionally guaranteed extra say in picking the party’s leaders at leadership conventions.
Traditionally, the most influential and militant union in Ontario is the federation representing the province’s 60,000 secondary-school teachers. And, yet, in the more than a century that the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has been in business, it’s been an extremely rare occurrence for the head of that union to put their name on a ballot and actually run for the NDP.
That rarity did happen this week, as the NDP introduced the recently retired president of the OSSTF, Harvey Bischof, as the party’s candidate in Brantford–Brant for next June’s election.
Bischof is a big catch for the NDP, and the party’s leader, Andrea Horwath, could scarcely stop smiling during the introductory news conference. The candidate has solid name recognition. His numerous television appearances when he led the OSSTF were characterized by serious, sober policy recommendations, oftentimes for governments with which he had huge differences. But you didn’t get the sense Bischof was peacocking for the cameras, and he didn’t take gratuitous personal shots at either of the two premiers he dealt with (Kathleen Wynne and Doug Ford).
Our journalism depends on you.
You can count on TVO to cover the stories others don’t—to fill the gaps in the ever-changing media landscape. But we can’t do this without you.
But make no mistake: being a union leader whose job is to advocate expressly for teachers and then trying to transform yourself into a politician, who’s supposed to take a broader view of things that are in the public’s interest, is a tricky balancing act.
I can recall only two other former OSSTF presidents running for provincial office. Earl Manners, the federation’s president from 1990 to 2003, ran unsuccessfully for the NDP in Haliburton–Kawartha Lakes–Brock in 2003. And Ken Coran ran for the Liberals in a London byelection in 2013. That was a very odd fit.
“I believe in Premier Wynne, and it is her values of collaboration, openness, and honesty that have drawn me into politics,” Coran said at the time. Of course, that was the same Ken Coran who’d angrily denounced the Liberals for unilaterally imposing contracts on the teacher unions only months earlier, when he’d been leading one.
In a business where authenticity is the coin of the realm, Coran’s perceived opportunism was fatal. Despite the Wynne government’s relative popularity at the time (the premier had been sworn in only six months earlier), Coran came a bad third in London West — a seat the Liberals had previously held — with just 16 per cent of the votes.
Bischof is obviously hoping to end the ex-OSSTF presidential losing streak, and he’s picked a difficult but not impossible riding in which to make it happen. In the 2018 election, which saw the Progressive Conservatives earn a majority government, the party won Brantford–Brant by only 635 votes over the NDP (about 1 per cent).
While Bischof brings a lot to the table, though, his presence on the NDP team could also raise a host of uncomfortable questions — one of which just arose. Until yesterday, the Liberals were the only party at Queen’s Park advocating mandatory vaccinations for teachers and other education workers. Ford has on numerous occasions ruled out that option, and for a time, Horwath did, too. That allowed Liberal leader Steven Del Duca to say things like: “I expected this low standard from Doug Ford, but I’m surprised to see it from Andrea Horwath. I will continue to tell them they’re both wrong.”
Furthermore, Del Duca was able to accuse Horwath of trying to appease the anti-vax crowd and “partnering with Doug Ford,” as “their positions are the same.”
Horwath’s comeback was to say, “Unlike Mr. Del Duca, I don’t take Charter rights loosely,” but that argument seemed to make little sense, given that students are already obliged to have other vaccinations (for example, for mumps, measles, and rubella) before they’re allowed to attend school. Why should COVID-19 shots be different?
Thursday afternoon, perhaps realizing her predicament, Horwath did a volte-face. “I fully support mandatory vaccination in health care and education, based on science and public-health priorities,” she said in a statement. “I should have made that position clearer … On Wednesday I made a mistake suggesting a mandatory vaccine policy during a global pandemic should take a back seat to Charter rights. I regret the comment. I was wrong.”
I have no issue with leaders changing their minds. Better that than doubling down on something that doesn’t make sense. But I did wonder whether that put Bischof in a tough spot. After all, while he was head of the OSSTF, he opposed mandatory vaccinations for his members.
“I don’t have a problem defending Andrea’s position,” Bischof told me in a phone call Thursday afternoon. “I understand she had to re-evaluate her position.”
Could the NDP’s new position on mandatory vaccinations now cause Bischof problems with his former union, whose members he dearly wants supporting him in the leadup to next year’s election?
“I didn’t have 100 per cent support as president of the OSSTF, and I won’t have it now that I’m an NDP candidate,” he says. “But do I expect significant support from the union in the next election? I do. The union and I both have our mandates, but there is considerable alignment.”
This isn’t meant to put an unfair spotlight on Bischof. Most new candidates for public office bring both expertise and baggage with them. Back in 1985, physician Jim Henderson was a Liberal MPP from Etobicoke. When Premier David Peterson decided to ban extra billing by doctors — in other words, forbid them from charging more than what the fee schedule permitted, requiring patients to dig into their pockets to pay extra — Henderson was in a pickle. He was now representing a government intent on banning extra billing, while still a member of the Ontario Medical Association, which was spending lots to fight that policy. When it ultimately came time to vote on the extra-billing ban, Henderson abstained; he told me after the fact he’d been plenty conflicted on the issue.
Nathan Stall, a member of the province’s science advisory table whom the Liberals just announced will be their party’s standard bearer in Toronto–St. Paul’s, may find a similar fork in the road on his political journey, when his partisan and professional values diverge.
This happens when people of ability hold public office. Rather than playing “gotcha” with them (which dissuades good people from going into politics), we should recognize that life is complicated and just let them figure it out.
It seems as if the NDP and Harvey Bischof have done just that.