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Quebec teachers leaning on each other as negotiations to end strike grind on

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When her union began a general unlimited strike last month, Gatineau-based teacher Geneviève Savard braced for what she called a "crossing of the desert."

The union — Fédération autonome de l'enseignement or FAE — doesn't offer strike pay to most of its roughly 66,000 members, and Savard, a recently single mother, is a junior teacher at the bottom of the pay scale. She supports the strike, but says her circumstances made it impossible to put money aside to prepare for the loss of income.

She followed conversations between teachers on social media. That's how she heard about Entraide pour les profs en grève — "Help for striking teachers" in English — a Facebook page where strikers can swap financial assistance, tips and donations.

Savard reached out to the page in a message explaining her situation. "Then the next day, they got back to me," she said in a phone interview. "I was told, 'Geneviève, there are people who want to help teachers, who are aware of the struggle you're going through, who are supportive, and who would like to help you.'"

The page privately matched her with another woman, a former teacher. "She told me, 'Geneviève, I understand what you're going through, I've been there. I want to give you a helping hand.'" Savard said the woman has sent money for groceries and bills and offered to stay in touch in case Savard needs anything else.

"The help was spontaneous, generous," Savard said. "It's someone I don't know at all."

Since it launched on Nov. 25, the Facebook page has amassed almost 5,000 members and countless posts. They've come both from strikers seeking aid and teachers or their supporters offering clothes, toys, coupons, local deal alerts and other assistance.

"We really expected to help 10, 12 teachers, then we thought we would have done our good deed," Marjorie Guilbault, one of the page founders, said in an interview. "But in just 24 hours, there were more than two thousand people who joined."

Guilbault, a teacher herself who belongs to a different union, said she got the idea for the Facebook page after seeing social media posts from striking teachers expressing anxiety about their bills and asking for tips. One week later, she said the page is receiving help requests by the hundreds.

"We didn't expect it to be so popular, and we didn't expect so many people to donate," she aaid.

Despite the success of the page and the good deeds stemming from it, both Guilbault and Savard say what they ultimately want is a deal with the province that ends the strike and improves work conditions for teachers.

"We want things to change so that we are recognized for our true worth, we have the help that we need, we have the services that we need and we don't need to go back to the street to make ourselves heard," Savard said.

Among the FAE's goals in negotiations with the government are pay increases and reforms to class composition that the union says would reduce teachers' workload and better accommodate students who require additional attention.

There was at least some hope of progress in negotiations Friday evening when FAE President Mélanie Hubert said the provincial government had made an "interesting" offer that addressed class composition. She said the union's negotiating team nevertheless rejected the deal, deeming it not yet "satisfactory" enough to end the strike that has forced the closure of around 800 schools across the province.

Hubert said the union planned to submit a counter offer "as soon as possible," adding she hoped "intense" negotiation sessions would continue all weekend. She added, however, that a return to class on Monday seemed "very, very, very optimistic."

The FAE is one of several Quebec public-sector unions currently holding strikes. Others, including one union representing 95,000 teachers, have been holding temporary strikes, the next of which is scheduled to take place between Dec. 8 and Dec. 14.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2023.

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