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A empty teachers desk is pictured at the front of a empty classroom at McGee Secondary school in Vancouver on Sept. 5.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Talks between the union representing B.C. teachers and their employer continued through the weekend, as the two sides and a mediator work to end the bitter strike that has kept 500,000 public school students out of the classroom.

Negotiators spent the weekend at a hotel near the Vancouver airport, but would not say what progress had been made. The parties have been down this road before, with mediator Vince Ready walking out on talks last month because the union and province were too far apart.

The parties remained apart physically over the weekend, working out of different ends of the hotel and meeting with Mr. Ready separately. But this round of talks – they kicked off Thursday – has run longer than the last, offering a rare flicker of hope in the months-long labour dispute.

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"Talks are continuing. That's all I can say," Mr. Ready told reporters as he entered the hotel Sunday.

A government spokesperson, in an e-mail, said the province had no update as of press time.

A union spokesperson did not return messages seeking comment.

As the negotiators worked, hundreds of people descended on downtown Vancouver for a pro-teacher rally. The group met outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, then marched along nearby streets. Some carried signs supporting teachers, while others criticized government.

The rally did appear to get heated at one point, with reports of shoving between a small number of people, some of whom opposed the union.

B.C. students have already missed out on two weeks of the new school year. The strike also wiped out the final two weeks of the past school year.

Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender have said the province wants to negotiate a new contract with teachers, instead of legislating them back to work.

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Mr. Fassbender, however, appeared to soften that stand last week, saying the province has to do whatever it takes to get students back in the classroom. He noted the legislature will be returning next month.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation has pushed for binding arbitration to settle the dispute. Under its proposal, issues related to wages, benefits and preparation time would be subject to binding arbitration, while other issues – including class size and composition – would be left for court proceedings already under way.

More than 99 per cent of the union's members voted in favour of binding arbitration, but Mr. Fassbender swiftly rejected the plan, saying it would result in a tax increase.

Several B.C. unions last week expressed their support for the BCTF and announced they would help cash-strapped teachers.

The B.C. Federation of Labour announced it would lend the BCTF $8-million. The B.C. Nurses' Union topped that up with a $500,000 gift – not a loan. BC Hydro workers are also voting on whether to lend the union another $100,000.

The loans and donations will go into a general hardship fund from which teachers facing financial difficulties can apply for a loan. Smaller amounts – say $100 for groceries – are sometimes distributed without the expectation of being paid back.

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With files from staff

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