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Canada Nova Scotia teachers vote for illegal strike action that could affect 118,000 students

Students from Citadel High School protest outside the legislature in Halifax in December, 2016.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Nova Scotia's teachers have given their union a mandate to take illegal strike action in response to sweeping education reforms announced by the government – a move that could affect about 118,000 public elementary and high-school students across the province.

Liette Doucet, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU), called on the province to halt any changes and meet with teachers after her members voted 82.5 per cent in favour of illegal job action. The teachers' contract does not expire until next year, and any job action could lead to penalties of up to $10,000 for the union and $1,000 per individual.

"They [the teachers] made this decision knowing that they could face a loss of pay and heavy fines. They are so concerned for their students and the future of education in this province that they are willing to accept hardship in hopes that it will demonstrate to the government that the only way forward is through meaningful consultation," Ms. Doucet told reporters Wednesday outside the NTSU office.

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The province's Education Minister, Zach Churchill, said he is open to meeting with the NSTU and is willing to show some flexibility. But he added that putting a pause on changes is "not acceptable."

"We do need to move forward with reform. Our kids can't wait … but if there are solutions out there that we need to consider, we are very open to considering those," Mr. Churchill said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The disruption in the education system is the latest chapter in the continuing strife between the province and its teachers. A year ago, the Liberals passed legislation that ended a lengthy contract dispute with teachers and put a stop to work-to-rule action. This came after teachers rejected three tentative agreements.

Ms. Doucet would not say what job action could be taken by teachers if the government does not halt the planned reforms and sit down with the union. Teachers could engage in rotating strikes, a full walkout or a work to rule.

The NSTU called a strike vote last week in response to the government's planned overhaul of the education system's administrative structure and operations, as recommended by an independent consultant.

Hired by the government in October, Avis Glaze, who previously served as Ontario's education commissioner, said in her report that a disjointed system and conflicting priorities have led to students in the province performing below the national average in science, reading and mathematics.

"If children are not achieving, to me, it cannot be business as usual," Ms. Glaze said in a recent interview.

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The government accepted all 22 of Ms. Glaze's recommendations and said it was ready to move forward on 11 of them.

Among the most controversial, the government said it would dissolve all seven English-language boards, which essentially involves removing school trustees, and replace them with a central advisory council. The province's francophone school board, the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial, would retain its current structure.

The province also said it intended to follow through on Ms. Glaze's recommendations that involved removing principals and vice-principals from the teachers' union and creating a provincial college of educators, a self-regulating professional association for teachers. Both of these recommendations have been criticized by the NSTU.

"Changing governance and administration to one that mirrors Ontario and British Columbia is very troubling," Ms. Doucet said on Wednesday. "In both these provinces, it has resulted in low teacher morale, teacher and administrator shortages, increased grievances and conflict. Teachers do not want that for Nova Scotia and especially not for their students."

The government could introduce changes through legislation as early as next week.

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