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The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in favour of the B.C. Teachers' Federation

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The Supreme Court of Canada has sided with the B.C. Teachers' Federation in a long-running court battle over the right to negotiate classroom conditions, creating a multimillion-dollar obligation for the provincial government as it readies for an election.

The decision marks the end of a court battle that began in 2002 – when Premier Christy Clark was education minister in the cabinet of her predecessor – over legislation that stripped teachers' bargaining rights related to class size and composition.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed two earlier Supreme Court of B.C. decisions that found the legislation to be unconstitutional and ordered the deleted language be restored.

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On a conference call, Finance Minister Mike de Jong shied away from estimating how much the ruling will cost the province, though he welcomed the court's quick decision, saying it was better to have it now rather than closer to next year's budget.

"We're now in a position where we can sit down with the BCTF and begin the process that the [Supreme Court of Canada] contemplated in its decision," Mr. de Jong said. "And we'll be in a much better position to responsibly and realistically reflect whatever additional costs are involved in our budget for 2017."

It would cost millions to hire enough teachers, librarians and other staff to match ratios and limits that were stripped from the teachers' contract in 2002, BCTF president Glen Hansman said.

"We are talking about things like a maximum class size for a primary class, a maximum class size for a secondary class, the number of school counsellors we should have in a high school relative to the number of students," Mr. Hansman said.

"Either we reopen bargaining with the restored language as the floor from which we are negotiating – or the government could take a more reasonable approach and say, 'Let's proceed with the language restored' and put the funding in place so we could hire those people and get them into schools," he added.

About 3,500 full-time jobs have been eliminated since 2002 as a result of contract changes and insufficient funding, Mr. Hansman said. The BCTF estimates it would cost between $250-million and $300-million a year to restore class limits and other provisions of previous contracts.

The teachers' current contract, which includes provisions to renegotiate depending on future court decisions, runs until June 30, 2019. Mr. de Jong said the government plans to move as quickly as it can to respond to the decision. The case dates back to the provincial government's decision in 2002 to remove a number of contract terms related to class size and classroom composition from the collective agreement, while also prohibiting them from being included in future negotiations.

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The BCTF challenged the legislation.

In 2011, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin found the legislation violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and gave the government a year to fix the law. The province passed new legislation the following year that included sections that had previously been declared unconstitutional, prompting a new court challenge from the union.

In 2014, the same judge found the new legislation was virtually identical to the former laws and awarded the BCTF $2-million in damages. In her 2014 decision, Justice Griffin said the court concluded "the government did not negotiate in good faith with the union" and that "their strategy was to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union."

The government appealed the decision and won at the B.C. Court of Appeal. Thursday's Supreme Court of Canada decision upholds Justice Griffin's 2014 decision, including its findings of fact. Throughout the legal process, the provincial government has warned that restoring the deleted contract terms would be costly. In its provincial budget last year, the province identified the case as a "major risk" to its balanced-budget plans. Bench decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada – issued the same day of a hearing – are relatively rare. The court typically takes several months to decide a case.

In several recent cases, the Supreme Court of Canada has been consistent and "quite bullish" in protecting workers' rights under the Charter, including the rights to unionize, strike and bargain collectively, said Joel Bakan, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Allard School of Law. "So there just wasn't a lot of argument on the other side … the seven majority judges looked at it and said, 'We've spoken already, we've articulated what the law is, we don't need to do it again,'" Prof. Bakan said.

The surprise ruling followed a hearing in Ottawa on Thursday. A notice posted to the court's website said the court allowed an appeal from the union in a 7-2 judgment.

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The BCTF has spent about $2.5-million to $3-million to fight the case, Mr. Hansman said.

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