It’s not a wildly original thought when it comes to the dispute between the B.C. government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, but after more than two months of this it’s all I’ve got left.
I have three kids who attend two different public schools in Vancouver. All three are under the age of 13 which means, thanks to the generosity of the B.C. government, my family stands to rake in a whopping $120 a day for as long as the schools are shut. You think I’d be daydreaming about all of the ways we could spend that cold hard cash, which will be delivered 30 days after a settlement is reached, but I’m not. I don’t want the money to, as B.C.’s Minister of Education suggested, “explore other educational opportunities.” I don’t need other educational opportunities. I have an educational opportunity across the street from me. It’s called a school, and my kids would like it to be open on Sept. 2.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
When the rotating strikes began in June, I was confident that two months would be long enough to settle the strike. But as summer dragged on it became clear that there was no sign of a settlement. The two sides were barely talking except through predictable and frustrating tit-for-tat press conferences and news releases. Finally, with less than three weeks to go before the scheduled start of the school year, mediator Vince Ready agreed to “monitor” the talks. One of his conditions was that both sides abide by a media blackout and end the public sniping. Encouraging news, but short-lived.
On Thursday morning, Education Minister Peter Fassbender offered himself up for a round of media interviews, ostensibly to brief parents about the aforementioned “other educational opportunities” and point them to a new government web page with instructions on how to collect their 40 bucks.
Was he breaking the media ban? Not according to him: “I absolutely respect the media blackout as it relates to the bargaining and the details at the table which I will not talk about, have not talked about. But as the Minister of Education I have a responsibility to parents to ensure that they are aware of what options are available to them if we’re not able to reach a settlement in time to open schools on Sept. 2,” the minister told me in an interview on Thursday.
Head to the website and you’ll find not only instructions on how to register for the $40-per-day scheme. You’ll also find details of the government’s bargaining position, and a raft of news releases demonstrating how the government has been able to settle with other public-sector unions, some of them having nothing to do with public education. As well, you’ll find a link to a document called, “Barriers to Concluding a Negotiated Collective Agreement: Costing the BCTF Proposals Currently on the Table.” So much for not talking about “the details at the table.”
What struck me, though, perhaps even more than what the minister had to say, was his demeanour: calm to the point of being nonchalant, and clearly self-assured. To me (and this is entirely subjective), this did not appear to be a man who carried the uncertainty of 600,000 public-school students on his shoulders. If it is, he’s not showing it.
No, that uncertainty is carried by the students themselves, who are wondering what their school year is going to look like and how a significant delay might affect their future plans. It is also carried by the parents who are scrambling to find child care and come up with a plan of their own.
So far we’ve managed to extend a community centre summer camp for our youngest, who is supposed to be on his way to Grade 1. We’re still at loose ends when it comes to my older son and daughter.
When I talk to people about the strike (and I’ve talked to a lot of people), even if they expressed sympathy for one side or the other at the outset, two months down the road they have settled into a “pox on both their houses” mindset. I’m pretty much there as well, except for this: Public education is a basic and essential public service. The Minister of Education is responsible for the province’s public schools.
It’s his job to make sure schools are open, staffed and equipped to do the job.
To borrow a line from Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus, “whatever it takes – negotiation, mediation, arbitration, even legislation,” this dispute needs to end.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.