Jim Iker smiles, then chuckles, when reminded his predecessor as president of the British Columbia teachers union described him as “kind-hearted.”
And then, in a soft-spoken way that draws the listener in to hear what he’s saying in a conference room at the headquarters of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, he warns about what Susan Lambert’s remark does not mean.
“You can be kind, but you also need to be principled,” Mr. Iker said. “You need to also be firm.”
The long-time teacher from the Burns Lake area took over as BCTF president on July 1, replacing Ms. Lambert, who served a three-year term. Foremost on his agenda is a provincial government rejuvenated by re-election intent on negotiating a 10-year labour agreement, that is unpopular with teachers.
Mr. Iker said he might be willing to consider a deal somewhere between the two years of the previous contract and the decade the Liberals want so long as it met teacher concerns.
“You keep your eye on the prize on anything you do, especially in bargaining,” he said. “You keep the goals of the membership in front of you in everything that you do.”
Mr. Iker has been 10 years out of the classroom, working in ever-more senior roles with the BCTF before being acclaimed as president. When school resumes, Mr. Iker will be at the forefront of labour advocacy for the interests of the 41,000 federation members. Beyond dealing with the contract, his agenda includes restoring guarantees for class sizes and composition, increased resources for classrooms, and closing a $1,000-per-student gap in funding between B.C. and the rest of Canada.
It’s officially a one-year gig, although presidents are often re-elected. During their tenure, they are paid 130 per cent of the salary they would have earned as a teacher.
In Mr. Iker’s case, that would refer to his years in Topley, B.C., a village 50 kilometres west of Burns Lake. Born in the southern Ontario city of Welland, Mr. Iker pursued an interest in teaching to Dalhousie University in Halifax, and came west to teach because he wanted a break from Ontario. “I had enough of having been in Ontario and growing up in Ontario,” he said. “I just wanted to get out.”
Mr. Iker arrived in Topley in 1977. He spent his teaching career there working, among other roles, in the classroom, as a school counsellor and special-needs teacher. One of the upsides of teaching in a small town, he says, has been watching students grow up, and seeing them as adult members of the community. On the downside, his school was closed in 2010.
But by then, he was deeply involved in the labour side. When he was not in the classroom, he was working on labour issues. He has been president of the Burns Lake teachers union, and was chief negotiator on the BCTF’s provincial bargaining team. He has done three years as both second vice-president of the BCTF and first vice-president.
“I knew that bargaining was a way to improve the conditions that we work in and the conditions that our students learn under,” he said.
Over time, his perspective on education was shaped by his roles as a father of two and grandfather of four – all living outside B.C.
“I am a parent. I am a grandparent. So I wanted the best for my kids when they were in school. I want the best for my grandkids when they’re in school. I want that best for every child who enters the public school.”
Seeking the leadership seemed logical, he says, given his long service in the union and support from colleagues.
He expected he would be on a political track but didn’t take it for granted. “One year at a time,” he said.
His wife remains in Topley. He gets back up north three or four times a month. “My wife would like to have it more,” he said wistfully.
He said his professional duties will be in the south, but sustenance will be in the north. He has 50 acres of land he does nothing with, but loves being on when he can. “Going back home to the north just grounds me. That’s an important part for me.”