CTF president Mark Ramsankar gets caught up on the ATA News during a visit to Barnett House just before Christmas.
Mark Ramsankar shares his thoughts on public education, taking on a new
role and life in the nation’s capital
Former ATA president Mark Ramsankar took over the presidency of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) on July 14, which meant a move to Ottawa. While visiting Barnett House in December, Ramsankar sat down with ATA News managing editor Cory Hare to discuss his new role.
How did your transition go?
The physical transfer was good. I’m still in an adjustment period to the type of work — it’s a different position — so that’s coming along, but I’m still coming to terms with the transition of being away from home. It’s been a very difficult transition for my family.
What challenges have you faced in making the switch from representing Alberta teachers to having a national mandate?
As a provincial president you’re very much hands on. You’re solving issues that need to be addressed that directly impact the classroom, so Alberta teachers would see the impact of their teachers’ organization in their classroom.
We want to have children front and centre. We want to have the story of Canadian classrooms front and centre.
– Mark Ramsankar,
You won’t see CTF in your classroom because the work that I do now is more of a global nature. We work and lobby on issues that impact the classroom but that are not policy driven for your classroom. For example, we know the effects of poverty in Canadian classrooms, so we’re working to get a youth commissioner. We do advocacy work on child poverty and family poverty, reminding MPs and senators about the effects of poverty on the family structure and how it interferes with a child’s opportunity to learn.
What else have you been working on since you took office?
Another example would be working on section 43 of Bill 206, the “spanking law.” CTF is fundamentally opposed to corporal punishment — that’s in our own policy — but section 43 protects teachers’ rights to use physical contact to ensure the safety of students. If that section gets taken out, we are lobbying to make sure that the language that will replace it will be protecting teachers.
The copyright law is another one under review. If they change away from the fair dealings portion of the copyright law, that will directly impact our schools.
I’ve had my very first senate meeting with the open caucus of the general senate. I talked about poverty and support for youth in general and a call for a youth commissioner.
I’ve had an opportunity to do a very large roundtable on youth employment. That was with the minister of labour and stakeholders in youth employment, getting the perspective of how part-time employment impacts high school students and junior high school students and their ability to pursue their academics.
I did a two-day seminar on the views of the profession and education as it relates to the cannabis laws. As Health Canada is putting together their health awareness program … my group worked with the 10-to 13-year-old age group. Health Canada originally didn’t have that as part of their plan, so we raised that as an issue and we were invited to work on it as part of the health awareness as they work through the law coming in.
Another big one is representing the profession at the Let’s Talk Science Canada 2067 meeting. That was with all the deputy ministers from across the country, a very big event.
When you were elected as CTF president, you said one of your priorities was to improve communication between CTF member organizations and between these organizations and CTF. What work have you done so far on this?
We are trying to address the feedback loop among the provinces and the CTF in general, and I’m still encouraging more communication among the provinces. It’s been worthwhile to put the effort in, but we’re not quite where we’d like to see us — there’s still work that we’ll continue to do. The feedback that I’ve received from some of the presidents from around the country has been quite positive.
How do you see the role of CTF in public education in Canada?
I think CTF has a major role to play in terms of how public education is viewed. There is a big push coming from the private sector and industry with the concept of privatization of education and the push for charters.
I work with the same vigour that I had as ATA president in talking about the value of the profession and the value of public education, why it’s important that we have a strong public education system. Because our country has haves and have-nots, the more we push for privatization and what we see coming from south of the border, we see that the privatization model isn’t beneficial. Public education truly is a foundational pillar of a strong society.
How does CTF work on that on a national stage?
That’s part of my conversation in any of the forums I [attend], with any of the MPs or the senators that I’ve had an opportunity to talk to and lobby on the issues that I’ve outlined. They also get a dose of the value of a robust, healthy public education system.
The language that I use, quite simply, is that children in Canada aren’t for sale, and the public education system shouldn’t be viewed as a target for private interests to simply look at making dollars from.
My challenge to industry at the [Let’s Talk Science] meeting was, are you supporting schools and the relationship between teachers and students? Because the essence of learning is in that relationship.
The other part of my conversation always addresses the challenge of action. What are you prepared to do? Not what are you prepared to talk about, but what are you prepared to do?
What are your top priorities for 2018?
Solidifying our action plan to push back against the copyright law. It’s in second reading in the senate — it’s been there for a while — but we want to be prepared if they move on that.
Our advocacy work around section 43 is a very big one because that directly impacts teachers and their ability to work with students. That’s their legal protection to do the things that they do.
We’ll still continue to advocate for a youth commissioner. That way we hope to have children as part of all the policy conversations. Right now I hear pushback from senators and MPs that they don’t need a youth commission because children belong to us all so they’re dealt with in many different areas. To me that’s government-speak for they belong to all of us, but it’s really easy not to have them on the radar.
We want to have children front and centre. We want to have the story of Canadian classrooms front and centre. The demographic changes across the country have been tremendous; class sizes are huge. We’ve got provinces and territories dealing with austerity budgets that are just starving the public system for resources, and that is causing major complications across the country.
Many individuals with whom we talk about schools have no idea what the structure and the complexity of the school classroom across Canada is today. They really don’t know what is going on in the classroom because they still have that mental view of what it was like when they were in school. The classroom today is very different from the classrooms from even five or 10 years ago.
Probably the biggest issue right now that we’re faced with and [one that] we’re working in co-ordination with the provinces and territories on is the concern over the rise in incidents of violence in the workplace and in the classroom. It’s a very big concern. It’s going to be about gathering the data and really showing what the realities of today’s classrooms are. We have inclusion; we have oversized classes; we lack the human resources to deal with some of the issues that teachers face. These are common threads across the country.
What is a typical day like for you?
There isn’t anything that’s typical. Some days, they’re later mornings; some days are really early. Some days I wake up and I go to the Hill and I have a meeting with either a senator or an MP, then I go to the office. Other days I go to the office. Doing the seminars and the roundtables, that takes me to other parts of Ontario … so it’s wherever the calendar takes me.
What is it like living in Ottawa?
I love Ottawa as a city. It’s a beautiful city; the people there are great.
I’m learning the city. I know where to drive. I am officially classed as a local because I actually drove to the airport to pick somebody up and take them to where they were going — that’s my measuring stick.
The weather patterns there are something I’ve never seen before. The weather blows in and out of there like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve never seen wind storms and rain storms that hit so hard and then are gone. The snow fell just before I left to come here the last time, and it is deep and it is wet — it’s not like the snow here.
Where I’m located in the city, I’m 15 minutes from the parliament buildings, 15 minutes from Chinatown, 20 minutes from Little Italy — so I do a lot of walking — but you feel safe, you feel good. It’s a great city to be in and around.
What do you miss most about living in Alberta?
The hard part is going to work and coming home to an apartment and then not speaking until the next day unless I can get a phone call home or FaceTime home. I absolutely miss the day to day of being home with my wife and kids. I do FaceTime and it’s nice because you can see people when you’re talking to them, but it’s not the same as just sitting in a room and knowing that you’re there.
I don’t have colleagues and friends and family that I can go and just see right away, so that is one of the things that I miss.
Are you having any trouble maintaining your allegiances to Edmonton sports teams?
None. Zero. I’m a born-and-raised Edmonton fan. There was a time that I was thinking, for an eastern team, I might cheer for the Senators as opposed to the Lightning — my eastern team is the Tampa Bay Lightning; they’re the only other team that I cheer for. The only jerseys I have at home are the Eskimos, Oilers and Golden Bears, because I’m a complete homer.
Editor’s note: Interview responses have been edited for length.