Education, training, and labour in Atlantic Canada: The big picture

By Ainslie Pierrynowski (AIMS On Campus Student Fellow)

In my previous AIMS On Campus op-eds regarding K-12 education in Atlantic Canada, I tended to focus on specific issue areas. For instance, I wrote about the value of e-learning in the region’s education systems. I also examined the fate of disused school buildings following school closures. Yet, while following discussions about the future of K-12 education in Atlantic Canada, I found that many debates regarding how schools in the region ought to function stemmed from one concern in particular. In Atlantic Canada—and, indeed, across the country—there exists an underlying tension within the public K-12 education system. On one hand, schools seek to deliver the same, shared experience to students. They hold students to agreed-upon standards: report cards, exams, grades, learning outcomes, behavioural expectations, and so on. They grant graduating students diplomas that have a widely understood meaning—and value—for employers and post-secondary institutions. At the same time, however, accommodating students with varying learning needs, interests, and career ambitions has become increasingly integral to how schools function.

This core trade-off between standardization and individualization informs a number of questions faced by educators, policymakers, and parents in Atlantic Canada. To what extent should parents and students be able to choose a course of study and personalize their education, and to what extent should school curricula set course requirements and standards? How can schools respond to calls to offer additional program requirements perceived to be relevant to the post-graduation world, such as career studies, coding, language courses, and more, while also taking heed of cries for a “back to the basics approach,” focused on nailing down the fundamentals of key subjects like mathematics and language arts? How can curriculum developers establish common, meaningful grading requirements while also challenging academically-inclined students and assisting students with learning difficulties?

Fortunately, several promising educational initiatives—many from Atlantic Canada, and a few from further afield—can provide insight into how schools could negotiate this balance and deliver even more relevant, engaging, and useful learning experiences to all.

Expand and standardize learning experiences beyond the classroom

A number of high schools across Atlantic Canada offer co-operative (“co-op”) education programs. Students enrolled in these courses complete a placement with the partner employer of their choice over a set time period, often for academic credit. This immersive learning experience can benefit students with a variety of academic, career, and personal goals. For example, the hands-on approach of a co-op placement can help to engage tactile learners. Co-op can also enable students to “test drive” a prospective career and afford students learning opportunities virtually impossible to access in a classroom setting—whether one seeks to work in the trades, health services, policing, or another field entirely. Co-op also provides students with advantages are pertinent to Atlantic Canada schools’ mission to prepare students to enter the labour force. That is, co-op entails firsthand experience in the workplace before graduation as well as valuable skills like resume- and cover letter-writing, interview techniques, and goal-setting. Nonetheless, co-op curricula and placement offerings can vary from province to province, or even from school to school. Therefore, educational jurisdictions in Atlantic Canada should expand co-op programs to more schools and seek out partnerships in a greater variety of professional fields, particularly when it comes to smaller or more isolated schools. They should also establish common inter-provincial and inter-scholastic standards regarding co-op learning outcomes, grading, and training before, during, and after placements. (Nova Scotia’s Options and Opportunities (O2) program provides one compelling model for a region-wide co-op program.) By doing so, schools can deliver a learning experience tailored to students’ needs and ambitions, in the context of Atlantic Canada’s labour market, while simultaneously providing a uniform, transferable qualification to those who complete the program.

Pursue tuition support programs

In the words of AIMS Schoolhouse Consulting Director Dr. Paul Bennett, the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP) affords some students with learning challenges “a vitally important educational lifeline.” The TSP provides students who cannot be served by their local public schools with the financial means to attend specialized schools. The TSP is a prime example of how education systems can grant students individualized learning experiences while ensuring that these experiences remain accessible to all. In a recent AIMS report, Dr. Bennett wrote that since its establishment in 2004 the TSP has enjoyed substantial success in meeting recipient students’ personal and academic needs. For provinces which lack similar tuition support programs, such as New Brunswick, the TSP could prove transferable. According to Dr. Bennett, a New Brunswick TSP could, if adopted, prove advantageous for the province’s 1 000 children who could benefit from specialized schools like Moncton’s Riverbend Community School.

Utilize inquiry-based learning

The term inquiry-based learning (ILB) may, initially, prompt skepticism, particularly in the wake of failed “educational fads.” ILB, however, stems from a substantial body of academic theory and empirical research. While the concept has a number of variations, inquiry-based learning is essentially a teaching method where an educator uses students’ initial questions, ideas, and observations about the subject at hand to structure the learning process, guiding students through problem-solving, debate, evidence-gathering, and, eventually, learning something new. Although putting ILB into practice is not without its challenges, the process nonetheless serves to sustain a balance between a personalized approach to education and a standardized one. Specifically, ILB enables students to delve more deeply into aspects of the curriculum which interest them or to focus on elements which they find confusing, while teaching all students valuable research and critical-thinking skills (capabilities which are especially important in the information age). ILB has been adapted to suit a variety of age groups and school subjects in classrooms around the world. Indeed, ILB was recently implemented in Ontario’s kindergarten classrooms.

Offer programs with international recognition

Finally, specialized programs with international standards allow students to pursue niche interests or meet their individual academic needs, while also earning a widely recognized qualification. Examples include the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) programs, offered at multiple schools in each of the Atlantic provinces. These programs deliver rigorous, internationally recognized curricula. The IB’s high school-level diploma program even affords graduating students academic credits at multiple universities around the world. Students seeking an academic challenges could also look to the Advanced Placement (AP) courses offered at some Atlantic Canada high schools. On a smaller scale, language tests like the French DELF/DALF provide a common measure of achievement. Therefore, Atlantic Canada schools should look to expanding their existing offerings of such programs, or even look into additional globally recognized programs with their own unique course content and benefits, like the International General Certificate of Education (IGCSE) for 14 to 16 year-olds.

Ultimately, grappling with the questions and debates which surround Atlantic Canada’s K-12 schools requires a close look at the tensions within K-12 education itself. The aforementioned measures, models, and examples from the region—and beyond—provide ample ways for policymakers, educators, and parents to move forward.

Premier Ford must stay the course

By Henry Gray (AIMS On Campus Student Fellow)

Doug Ford was recently sworn in as the new Premier of Ontario, ending 15 years of uninterrupted Liberal rule in Canada’s most populous province. The PC leader rode a wave of change into Queen’s Park, promising to shake up business as usual.

You might be asking yourself “what business?” if you subscribe to the belief that as a populist candidate his biggest concern is returning Ontario to the glory of ‘Buck-a-Beer’. However, his leadership leaves a little more to the imagination than cheap suds.

It appears that Mr. Ford will have his work cut out for him. Long considered Canada’s economic engine, Ontario became a “have not” province in 2014 under Kathleen Wynne. In 2015, it assumed the ignominious title of the world’s most indebted sub-sovereign and saw its credit rating downgraded to AA- by Fitch Ratings, its lowest level ever. Public sector unions and other special interests have ridden roughshod over the political process, and public trust has been eroded by sweetheart deals for government insiders such as electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla. Under the Liberal government, Ontario began subsidizing zero-emissions vehicles. Studies have found that offering rebates on the purchase of electric cars are simultaneously one of the most expensive and least effective ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Wynne government also drew criticism when it announced that it was removing a provision that had previously prevented Tesla owners from receiving the maximum rebate of $14,000 around the same time that a senior Liberal staffer was hired by Tesla.

The incoming premier has laid out an encouragingly ambitious plan to restore Ontario’s fiscal health. Indeed, a precedent was set when the Ford government froze pay raises for public sector managers mere hours after taking office, leaving no room for public hesitation on the government’s plans to make good on its election promise of finding $6 billion worth of efficiencies in government spending without firing anyone. Moreover, Premier Ford is vowing to follow through on another platform plank by scrapping Ontario’s cap and trade system, which increases the price of gasoline by 4.3 cents per litre. The elimination of the centrepiece of Premier Wynne’s environmental legacy will facilitate Premier Ford’s achievement of his stated goal of a 10 cent reduction in the price of gasoline. The costs of the carbon tax are also passed on to already burdened families in the form of higher hydro bills, as well as goods and services that produce emissions. Eliminating the carbon tax will stimulate Ontario’s economy in addition to letting Ontario families keep more of what they earn.

Finally, Doug Ford will also go a long way towards returning Ontario to “have” status by following through on his famous “buck-a-beer” pledge. During the election campaign, Mr. Ford promised to reverse the Liberal government decision, made in 2008, to increase the minimum price floor for beer. The PCs also committed to expanding the sale of beer and wine to corner stores, a convenience the residents of neighbouring Quebec have enjoyed for years. These measures would encourage price competition, which will be beneficial both to consumers and to producers.

Doug Ford has already meaningfully shaken up the status quo in Ontario but creating a better Ontario will require a concerted and focused effort over many years. The PC government can expect to face numerous hurdles and distractions over the next four years. Mr. Ford must not allow himself to be distracted by a hostile press or led astray by self-serving lobbyists or ingratiating special interests. There are many good things to be said about the plan that Premier Ford presented to the people of Ontario and which won him his mandate. However, the key to the success of Mr. Ford’s effort to restore Ontario’s prosperity will be staying the course.

Trans Mountain Pipeline and What it means for Canada

By Patrick O’Brien (AIMS On Campus Student Fellow)

Over the last few months there has been a major uproar in the Canadian energy industry and the Canadian economy as a whole. Kinder Morgan, a large oil and gas company with operations in Calgary halted construction of its Trans Mountain Pipeline project, due to political uncertainty which has put the company in tough spot. After major opposition of the continued construction of the pipeline from the B.C Government, the Federal Government has decided to take action and put up the funds necessary to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline project from Kinder Morgan. The sale of private assets to the Federal Government will close in August, assuming there isn’t action from a private company that is willing to step in and make a purchase. The total purchase price of the project is $4.5 billion, and will need another large capital injection to finance the completion of the project. When this capital is needed, the NDP Government in Alberta will offer $2 billion to cover any costs that were not initially considered. Although this comes with a twist: Each dollar that is potentially invested by the provincial government (Alberta) will be translated into partial ownership of the project once completed.

Why was Government intervention needed in this case, and what does it say about Canada`s Business environment? The tension between B.C and Alberta over the distribution of oil over B.C territory has caused protest by the inhabitants, and the First Nations as a portion of the Pipeline crosses over their land. In the midst of this, Kinder Morgan decided to stop the project due to high costs associated with the halt in operations and the Federal Government approved the purchase with Canadian funds. The problem is B.C is the only province that has not approved the go ahead. This presents a huge problem where Provincial jurisdiction is opposing/rejecting a Federal decision to move ahead with the project construction.

How might this affect Canada, and the economy? It is quite normal for a private company to be delayed permission to build in certain areas, although when it comes to one province fighting the entire Country, it is now on the center stage for the rest of the world to see. The acquisition of the project in the beginning from the Government show the international business community that we are not able to properly deal with situations and that regulatory bodies are not able to quickly resolve issues. A poll conducted by Global news found that fifty-six percent of Canadians support the expansion, with twenty-four percent reject the idea, and the rest being neutral. Even in the B.C, the Province that still rejects the idea, fifty-five percent of residents support the project and thirty-seven percent rejecting the idea. Political uncertainty of business operations like this situation, hinder the growth of our Country. The pipeline would allow for triple current production, and access to Asian and European markets, allowing Canada to distribute its oil on a much larger scale, gain international recognition, and therefore demand higher oil prices. Breaking into new markets, and generating business internationally creates new jobs for Canadians and attracts foreign direct investment into Canada.

There unfortunately is never all positives to one decision, and in this case there are a few major concerns. For starters, the pipeline needs to cross over Aboriginal land in order to function and impedes on the rights given to its owners. Another concern is oil spills. Although technology is advancing rapidly and the likelihood of an oil spill is much less than it used to be, there is still a huge environmental costs that comes with the chance. It will be interesting to see the development of the project going forward, and if differences can be resolved in order to boost the project. Look out for new developments in the project and what will be in store for Canada if it does not go through.