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How will by-election voters grade the B.C. Liberals' handling of dispute with teachers?

Susan Lambert, President, B.C. Teachers' Federation during a press conference at Sir Guy Carleton school in Vancouver March 5, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

They might not have intended to colour next month's by-elections, but B.C. teachers could well have that effect.

The districts of Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope will hold by-elections April 19 – one day after teachers finish voting on a protest that could result in their walkout.

Norman Ruff, political science professor emeritus of the University of Victoria, said that means teachers and the Liberal government's handling of their dispute will be top of mind as by-election voters head to the polls.

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"It could well be a factor," Prof. Ruff said in an interview.

B.C. teachers have been without a contract since June and have called for, among other things, a 15-per-cent pay hike over three years. This month, the province's 41,000 teachers staged a three-day walkout in response to Bill 22, legislation that bans strikes and imposes a mediator to end the dispute.

The vote to replace Port Moody-Coquitlam MLA Iain Black had to be called by April 7. Mr. Black resigned last year to take a position as president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver Board of Trade. Barry Penner, MLA for Chilliwack-Hope and also a Liberal, resigned in January to work for a Vancouver law firm.

Prof. Ruff said the timing of the by-elections and the teachers' vote is likely a coincidence, since it's hardly good news for government.

Susan Lambert, president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, said it's unclear whether the two events are connected. However, she accused the Liberals of using the education system as a political football to try to further their aims.

"It's very clear that they're trying to use teachers as a wedge issue, that they are trying to show some kind of might-is-right attitude toward teachers and teaching," she said in an interview Thursday. "I think that's so unfortunate."

A message left for Premier Christy Clark on the topic was not returned.

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The teachers' federation is seeking its membership's support for an action plan that could lead to a strike. A second vote would be required to authorize the strike. Such action would come with hefty penalties – Bill 22 would see the federation fined no less than $1.3-million a day, while participating teachers would be fined no more than $475 a day.

Ms. Lambert said the by-election dates will have no impact on what teachers do or when they do it. She said the by-elections are sure to attract the attention of teachers living in those ridings, teachers who will want to have their say in the electoral process.

Joe Trasolini, the NDP candidate for Port Moody-Coquitlam, said he doesn't believe the teachers' dispute will affect the by-election results. "I don't see a link," he said in an interview.

Christine Clarke, the Conservative candidate for Port Moody-Coquitlam, agreed. Dennis Marsden, Liberal candidate for the same riding, said what he's heard most from residents is they don't want increased taxation, which would be the case under an NDP government.

Royce Koop, assistant professor in the school of public policy at Simon Fraser University, said he expects the Liberals to lose both ridings due to the government's general unpopularity. He said the party appears to have put a great deal of emphasis on playing politics and not enough on policy. The problem with the teachers' dispute, he said, is the public received the impression that the government was trying to politicize the conflict.

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