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Angry Crown attorneys descended on the Nova Scotia legislature Wednesday after learning the Liberal government had introduced essential services legislation that would take away their right to arbitration in the midst of ongoing contract talks.

The changes to the Crown Attorneys’ Labour Relations Act overrides the current framework agreement and gives the prosecutors the right to strike while requiring that they provide essential services.

Perry Borden, president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorney’s Association, said his 100 members were unaware of the government’s plan, only finding out the legislation was coming as it was tabled in the legislature.

“We feel like that we were blindsided,” said Borden. “We would submit that they have negotiated in bad faith. It’s the same government that signed this (current) agreement, and they are not sticking to the terms that they signed on for.”

He said the legislation would “fracture” his membership’s relationship with the government.

Finance Minister Karen Casey said the move was necessary because the government simply can’t afford what’s being asked for.

The Crown attorneys are seeking a 17 per cent salary increase over four years, which Casey said is far beyond an established wage pattern set for the public sector and the seven per cent over four years offered by the government during negotiations.

Casey said the increase would have cost the government an additional $2.6 million annually.

“To look at 17 per cent for one small sector, or even a large sector, is something this province cannot afford and it doesn’t keep us within our objectives to be fair and consistent,” Casey said.

The collective agreement expired March 31, and both sides met twice for negotiations in June before two conciliation meetings were held this month.

Rick Woodburn, a member of the attorneys’ bargaining committee, said the wage increase sought is in line with counterparts across Canada.

He said Nova Scotia Crown attorneys are currently the highest paid in Atlantic Canada but the increase would only rank them in the middle nationally. According to figures released by the province, they currently earn up to $149,000 annually, a figure that would increase to about $160,000 under the government’s offer.

“This government gave us binding arbitration so we wouldn’t go on strike,” Woodburn said. “Now this same government, when we exercised our right to binding arbitration is taking it away – in our view that’s unconstitutional and it’s unfair.”

However, Woodburn couldn’t say whether the changes would lead to a court challenge, saying the association would need time to review them in depth.

As for the essential services provision, Woodburn said most of the duties carried out by prosecutors would be considered essential, especially in light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Jordan decision in 2016, which set time limits for concluding criminal cases.

“We are brushing up against those timelines as we speak,” Woodburn said. “It’s exactly why we want binding arbitration. We want to make sure that the courts move forward in a smooth fashion.”

Claudia Chenier, the NDP’s house leader, said offering the right to strike is little consolation in light of what’s being taken away. “This is classic doublespeak from a government that doesn’t care about collective bargaining,” she said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston also panned the legislation, questioning the government’s priorities.

“On the one hand, you have a government that spends $20 million on a ferry that doesn’t leave the wharf, and on the other hand, they are willing to go to war with Crown attorneys on $2 million a year,” Houston said.

The province said Crown attorneys in Quebec and New Brunswick are also covered by right-to-strike legislation. Quebec attorneys reached an agreement with that province’s essential services council to staff specific cases during a strike in 2011.

Considering the time needed to adopt the legislation, it is not expected the province’s Crown attorneys could strike before mid-November, at the earliest.

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