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B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker speaks to reporters after a news conference in Vancouver, Feb. 4, 2014. (DARRYL DYCK for The Globe and Mail)
B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker speaks to reporters after a news conference in Vancouver, Feb. 4, 2014. (DARRYL DYCK for The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

B.C., teachers going back to war Add to ...

It wasn’t that long ago there seemed reason for hope when it came to the chronically fractious relationship between the B.C. government and the union representing the province’s teachers.

Peter Fassbender was named the government’s new education minister. Smart, politically savvy, a moderate, he seemed the perfect antidote for what ailed relations between the government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. Meantime, Jim Iker had been elected to lead the BCTF, the first president in more than a decade who didn’t seem like a hardened ideologue there to push one agenda and one agenda only: complete control over education matters in B.C.

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That was last summer.

This week those dreams were dashed, and it now appears the bitter association between the two sides will continue. And, as usual, it will be kids and parents caught in the crossfire, voiceless as always, unable to do much about the incessant bickering that has burdened and darkened education policy in the province for more than a decade.

The government announced Tuesday that it intends to appeal a recent B.C. Supreme Court decision that restored key rights for teachers. In a scathing verdict, Justice Susan Griffin ruled that the Liberal government not once, but twice passed unconstitutional legislation to prevent teachers from bargaining class size and composition. Worse, she suggested that on the second occasion it was done to provoke a strike by the BCTF so the government could drum up political support for imposing legislation.

After spending millions already in losing court appearances related to a decision the Liberals made in 2002 to rip up existing contracts with public-sector unions, it seems the government will spend millions more in what will likely be another defeat. But it would seem to be the price it’s willing to pay to stall the inevitable, which, when it comes to addressing Justice Griffin’s ruling, could cost hundreds of millions.

At the same time, the government and the BCTF are supposed to be trying to negotiate a new contract.

The government wants the union to accept a 10-year agreement. As far-fetched as that idea always was, now it’s impossible. The idea of suggesting it to the BCTF now is laughable. The union has no reason to trust this government – and it has a judge’s ruling to back up its suspicions.

All these years we’ve heard the Liberals accusing the BCTF of negotiating in bad faith. Now we discover it was the government that was being underhanded.

This is not to say the BCTF is completely innocent here or that it wipes out years of utter intransigence at the negotiating table for which it was partly responsible. The government’s frustration with the union was often warranted. The BCTF has been a proxy for the NDP for years, and had completely politicized the education debate in B.C. And when you hear Jim Iker say as he did Tuesday that B.C. needs to hire 6,600 more educators just to reach the average student/teacher ratio in Canada, you shake your head.

Where does all this money come from? Despite all these classroom limitations we keep hearing about, B.C. students actually perform extraordinarily well by most measures. The government is introducing a new curriculum that most teachers love, one that will focus less on testing and more on individualized learning. That is actually a big win for the classroom that you don’t hear the BCTF talk much about.

Since it could take some time before B.C.’s appeal of Justice Griffin’s ruling is heard, we can likely anticipate that contract negotiations will drift along, bogged down by resentment and distrust. The government will continue to talk about a decade-long peace accord that will never happen but sounds good in public, and the union will continue to talk about wanting only what’s good for the kids when everybody knows it’s about wanting what’s good for its union members, too.

Minister Fassbender said Tuesday the decision to appeal was not a signal that the government was “declaring war,” on teachers. Mr. Iker said the move shows the government considers itself above the law.

“Given their bad faith approach and the last 12 years of cuts, how can teachers trust this government?” he asked. “Today, with this appeal, [the government] have shown that we cannot trust them … [it’s] sad, disappointing but entirely predictable from a government that cannot be trusted to put education before politics.”

Sound familiar? Turns out, labour peace between these two mortal enemies was too much for which to ask.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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