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British Columbia B.C. teachers’ Supreme Court appeal could affect national labour relations

A sign hangs outside Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School in Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 29, 2014.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Canada's highest court has agreed to hear an appeal in a dispute that has fuelled the volatile relationship between British Columbia teachers and the provincial government in a case that could affect labour relations across the country.

The Supreme Court of Canada said Thursday it would hear a case related to the provincial government's use of legislation to change teachers' bargaining rights 14 years ago.

That law set off two separate legal cases that were fought at several levels of court; in one ruling, a judge accused the government of attempting to provoke a strike.

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The president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation welcomed Thursday's development, calling it a debate about legal arguments, constitutional rights and the meaning of free collective bargaining.

"We're looking forward to the opportunity to present our arguments to the court and hopefully win back important working conditions for our teachers, which we believe were unconstitutionally stripped from our collective agreements," Jim Iker told a news conference.

B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier told reporters later Thursday the government was confident of its legal position and repeatedly described the pending court hearing as part of the "democratic process."

One industrial-relations expert said the development could lead to a ruling that will ripple far beyond the province.

"This is a case that could have major implications for how collective bargaining works in Canada in general," said Fiona McQuarrie, an associate professor in industrial relations at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.

The dispute dates back to a 2002 law that stripped classroom size and composition clauses from contracts. A judge later ruled that law unconstitutional. The province tried again with similar legislation in 2012. That updated law was later ruled unconstitutional by a B.C. Supreme Court judge who also concluded the province negotiated in bad faith and attempted to provoke a teachers strike as part of its bargaining strategy.

The B.C. Appeal Court weighed in last year, overturning the earlier decision and siding with the government. The teachers then asked the Supreme Court of Canada to intervene.

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As is usual, the Supreme Court did not provide any reasons Thursday when it agreed to hear the case.

In an interview, Prof. McQuarrie said the outcome of the case could bring clarity to government's occasional dual role as employer and lawmaker, especially when the latter role gives it powers most other employers wouldn't have.

A Supreme Court ruling, she said, could also clarify government's right to refuse to bargain with public-sector unions on some issues and whether government has the right to unilaterally put policy into place without bargaining it first.

"Whatever decision [the Supreme Court makes], whether towards the union side or the government side, could set precedents for other provincial governments and other public-sector governments to bring similar cases to the Supreme Court."

Mr. Iker said he was hoping for a hearing before the Supreme Court by the fall and a decision within a year.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark was education minister when the province first stripped the teachers' contract.

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This week's developments come after a bitter, months-long teachers' strike in 2014 that ended with a six-year contract that included a 7.25-per-cent raise and a $400-million fund to hire bargaining unit members to address class size and composition issues.

Despite past battles, both Mr. Iker and Mr. Bernier insisted there was a good relationship between teachers and the government.

Mr. Iker said teachers are working well with the Liberals on revisions to curriculum, but it was up to teachers to advocate for more funding to address student needs.

Mr. Bernier ended his news conference by noting he was headed for a previously scheduled meeting with Mr. Iker. "We're going to continue working on the great relationship we have with the BCTF, working side by side with them," he said.

NDP education critic Rob Fleming said the legal situation creates "uncertainty and risk" in B.C. education because it isn't clear how the Supreme Court will rule.

Mr. Fleming also said in an interview the Liberal government will have an excuse not to bolster education funding for the same reason.

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Still, he said the ruling will finally end the long-running legal dispute once and for all.

"This is the final showdown in court."

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