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With election looming, peace between Liberals and B.C. teachers in peril

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday March 18, 2016.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It took a dozen years after then-education minister Christy Clark introduced a law to strip B.C. teachers of their bargaining rights on working conditions to mend relations between her government and the teachers' union.

But as Thursday's Supreme Court of Canada decision shows, the period of detente heralded in with a six-year contract negotiated in the fall of 2014 was not secure.

That fall, in order to break the bargaining deadlock that had closed schools for more than four weeks, the provincial government withdrew a contentious proposal known as E-80 that would have undone the teachers' past court victories, denying them the restoration of their old contract language.

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With that demand off the table, the teachers gave up the right to retroactively claim damages. And the framework for a pact, finally, was in place.

The pact ended the longest provincewide strike in the BC Teachers' Federation's history. But in giving up E-80, the province allowed the issue of class size and composition to continue to wend its way to the highest court, leading to Thursday's surprise Supreme Court decision that restores the teachers' contract language on class size and composition to the levels that existed in 2002.

The 2014-2019 collective agreement anticipated the possibility of this finding, and offers a path to negotiating a settlement without disrupting classrooms: "If the final judgment affects the content of the collective agreement by fully or partially restoring the 2002 language, the parties will ... bargain from the restored language."

That means anything less than restoring the limits on class size and composition that existed in 2002 would require a concession from the BCTF. The teachers' union says that means the government needs to get ready to hire more specialist teachers and, in many cases, reduce class sizes.

Whether the two sides will reach an agreement, however, is not certain.

The court ruling comes just six months before the next provincial election. The B.C. Liberals have a long history of using the BCTF as a political football during election campaigns.

In the 2014 B.C. Supreme Court ruling by Madam Justice Susan Griffin – now upheld by the highest court in the land – Ms. Clark's legislation was found to have trampled the Charter rights of the province's teachers. Justice Griffin concluded this was done in an effort to manufacture a failure in collective bargaining for political gain.

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"The Court has concluded that the government did not negotiate in good faith with the union," Justice Griffin wrote. "One of the problems was that the government representatives were preoccupied by another strategy. Their strategy was to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union."

But that toxic relationship was supposed to have changed when Premier Christy Clark sat down with top labour leaders in a secret meeting to break the impasse of the teachers' strike in September of 2014. It was her first time in 12 years that she had sat down with the BCTF leadership and she emerged from her 45-minute meeting with then-union president Jim Iker with a mutual promise of a new era of co-operation.

"We called a truce between us for five years," the Premier said in an interview at that time, once the teachers had ratified the deal. "We were able to lay down our arms and now we have the space to sit and talk about kids and classrooms and improving outcomes and modernizing education. … That is the real prize here."

On Thursday, as the provincial government absorbed the final verdict of the courts, it was left to Finance Minister Mike de Jong to respond. He struck a contrite tone, acknowledging that the government goes into this next round of talks in a weaker position. He said he is hopeful that the "far more positive climate" at the bargaining table will help resolve the matter quickly, and he wants to have the cost worked out before he tables his budget in February.

Ms. Clark and the teachers' union have an opportunity to hold on to the prize of labour peace in B.C. schools, but in the shadow of an election campaign it will take a serious effort – from both sides – not to fall back into well-established patterns of war.

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