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From the archives: Clark facing crisis after NDP revelations about talks with teachers

This article was originally published in February of 2014. Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.

Court documents released by the B.C. New Democratic Party Wednesday have thrust B.C. Premier Christy Clark into the first crisis of her post-election administration. And it's one that threatens to do irreparable damage to relations between Ms. Clark's Liberal government and the province's teachers.

For a few weeks now, Ms. Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender have vigorously been denying comments made in a recent B.C. Supreme Court judgment stating that in 2011 the provincial government tried to provoke a strike with the B.C. Teachers' Federation to create the social environment necessary to impose legislation on teachers. The bill inhibited previously negotiated rights and privileges won by the BCTF.

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Underlying the plan was the notion that if the teachers went on strike, it would upset the public, which would then side with the government in its intent to force the legislation on teachers.

As recently as this Tuesday, Ms. Clark said this was not true. Her Education Minister refuted it again on Wednesday. But those denials look incredibly shaky in light of the documents released by the NDP that were widely quoted by the party during Question Period.

The documents focus on testimony given in court by the government's chief negotiator in contract talks with the BCTF – Paul Straszak. In that testimony, Mr. Straszak talks about the tools the government had at its disposal to "increase the pressure on the [BCTF] to escalate the strike."

Mr. Straszak is asked on the stand: "So your objective as government was to increase the pressure on the teachers to have them go out on a full-scale strike? Is that correct?"

His answer: "We – yes. I'll say that's correct." As bad, Mr. Straszak says he briefed the Premier's deputy, John Dyble, on the strategy ahead of a meeting with the provincial cabinet. Mr. Straszak also talked about the tools that were available to apply that strike pressure, such as cancelling teacher leaves and restricting funding to school districts.

So this allegation no longer resides in the realm of hearsay or in the mind of a Supreme Court judge. This is the government's chief negotiator with the BCTF talking about a plan to put tens of thousands of kids out of school to fulfill the government's political agenda. And that's about as damaging, optically, as it gets for a governing party.

Not surprisingly, the Premier wasn't answering any of the pointed questions directed her way during Question Period. She let Justice Minister Suzanne Anton handle them.

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Because the Supreme Court ruling that contained the incendiary references by the judge is being appealed, Ms. Anton was able to say the government couldn't comment because the matter could soon be before the courts.

It seemed like a convenient response but an odd one, given that Ms. Clark and her Education Minister have been talking about the court decision and the judge's comments for a few weeks now.

Mr. Fassbender continued to insist on Wednesday that the government had no intention of trying to provoke a strike back in 2011. If that is the case, then someone in this matter is not telling the truth. It would mean that Mr. Straszak perjured himself under oath. Or it means that the Premier has not been telling the truth about the whole matter, which is what Mr. Dix suggested on Wednesday outside the legislature.

This matter is not going away any time soon.

The Opposition and the media will insist on finding out who is telling the truth here and who isn't. Ms. Clark could claim that Mr. Straszak was not reflecting her wishes when he talked about trying to provoke a strike. But then it would be up to Mr. Straszak to give his side of the story. Did he get his marching orders from the government? Did he brief the cabinet, including Ms. Clark, on the pro-strike strategy?

It's difficult to believe that a chief government negotiator would embark on this path on his own, without the backing of government. A rogue negotiator heading off to put tens of thousands of kids out of school because he thinks it's the right thing to do. Seems incredibly far-fetched to me.

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What doesn't, however, is the notion that this imbroglio has the potential to do severe damage to teacher-government relations in B.C. and thoroughly undermine the contract negotiations that are taking place now. This matter needs to be explained. And apologies may need to follow soon after.

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