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Members of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation vote on tentative deal with the B.C. government in Vancouver on Sept. 18, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Despite union leaders admitting the deal they negotiated for B.C.'s 41,000 public school teachers wasn't what they had set out to win, 86 per cent of teachers voted Thursday to end a bitter five-week strike and reopen most of the province's classrooms by Monday.

After a day where teachers warned of a bittersweet victory, B.C. Teachers' Federation President Jim Iker announced Thursday that of 31,741 ballots cast, 27,275 were in favour of adopting the new six-year contract – ending the longest province-wide strike in the union's history.

"We all know that this deal isn't perfect, but it does provide gains for teachers, it protects our charter rights, it increases support for our students," said Mr. Iker, after a tumultuous series of negotiations that lasted most of 2014. "We have emerged as a stronger and more engaged union."

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(Connect with our B.C. teachers' strike live blog for the latest updates on the end of the strike.)

The conflict between teachers and the province had seemed destined to end in legislation before a surprise resolution early Tuesday morning.

The number of ballots cast in favour of the agreement was the most of any ratification votes held by the union over the past decade.

"It isn't great, but for most of us it was good enough," said Nick Smith, a high school teacher who voted in favour of the six-year agreement, the longest yet signed between the B.C. government and the BCTF.

The size of the victory came as a surprise to Norman Ruff, a political science professor at the University of Victoria. After strong calls for teachers to reject the deal, a similar number of teachers voted to adopt the agreement as voted to start the strike at the start of the summer.

"There was talk of people holding their noses when they voted. Some probably were, but this was a strong endorsement of Mr. Iker and his position," said Prof. Ruff.

Many of the province's largest school boards have indicated that students should prepare for a shortened day on Monday consisting of registration, before classes begin on earnest the following day.

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Despite losing three weeks of instruction at the beginning of this school year, Mr. Iker said that no missed time would be made up.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender congratulated teachers on the vote. "We can now focus on the path forward," he said in a statement. The government has indicated it wants to negotiate a decade-long deal to follow the end of this agreement in 2019.

The end of the decade remains far off for thousands of the province's teachers who will be returning to work despite a deal which they found disappointing.

"We are not happy," said Vancouver teacher-librarian Frances Renzullo after voting on Thursday. "We feel like we were a little taken by the government and not left with a lot of improvements. We walked [the picket lines] a lot, and lost a lot of our wages.

"Today, being knocked down like this, I feel really disillusioned."

High school teacher Elisabeth Agosti said she felt both disappointed and insulted after seeing the details of the tentative agreement, which was shared with members late Tuesday.

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"I just thought, 'We're being forced into this. We have no choice,' " she said.

The six-year deal includes a 7.25-per-cent salary increase, improvements in extended health benefits and teaching-on-call pay, and a $400-million education fund to hire specialist and classroom teachers over the six-year term.

Of five teachers standing outside a Vancouver school, three teachers had voted against the agreement, saying neither classroom conditions nor salary increases had been adequately addressed despite job action that has cost some teachers around $10,000.

The other two said they voted in favour of it grudgingly: They can't afford to picket any longer and are concerned that rejecting the agreement would turn public support against them.

Teachers will return to the classrooms on Friday to prepare for the start of the new school year.

Some teachers noted that if the union was satisfied with the 7.25-per-cent salary increase – an amount many noted doesn't even keep up with inflation – it should have accepted it in the spring, when it would have come with the government's $1,200 signing bonus and curtailed additional weeks of picketing.

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Teacher-librarian Mary Locke said she was "extremely disappointed" that learning conditions for children won't have any meaningful improvements.

"But I am very happy that our courageous action, in going without salaries all these weeks, has brought about a public conversation about public education and its role in society," she said.

Said counsellor Bonnie Caulfield: "I really feel there should be a law that anyone who becomes an MLA – and especially the premier – should have to sign their children up for public schools."

Mr. Iker says the education fund will amount to "several hundred new teaching positions each year" – but some school districts have already indicated it won't bring classrooms back to the pre-2002 levels the union has long been calling for.

Patti Bacchus, chair of the Vancouver School Board, said it would cost nearly $60-million just to restore what has been lost in the past dozen years in her school district.

"If we were to have the equivalent level of services and staffing as we did in 2002, adjusted for enrolment, adjusted for inflation, it would take about $60-million to restore the equivalent level," she said.

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"That's everything from senior managers down to playground supervisors. There's a small amount in this agreement that will bring some more teaching positions back into the schools, that will replace some of the ones who have been lost, and that's a good thing, but does it move us ahead of where we would have been? No. It's kind of putting back a portion of what has been lost through 12 years of funding shortfalls."

The provincial government has lost two B.C. Supreme Court cases over its 2002 decision to unilaterally remove class size and composition from the collective agreement. The government is appealing and a hearing is scheduled next month.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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