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Chairs are seen on top of desks in a physics lab at McGee Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. Schools will remain empty like this one this week as the ongoing teachers strike continues into its second week of the new school year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Matters of principle can give rise to the most destructive, toxic disputes. That is why the constitutional question at the heart of the virulent conflict between the B.C. government and the B.C. Teachers' Federation should be dealt with at the slow, deliberate pace of the courts, while students and teachers (not to mention parents) can get on with their lives, under some sort of interim compromise.

In 2002, the B.C. legislature passed a law that eliminated a number of previously enacted collective-agreement clauses from the scope of collective bargaining. The province had, in earlier bargaining, given the teachers guarantees on class sizes; then it took them back. In 2011, a trial judge, Justice Susan Griffin, held that the 2002 law was unconstitutional, infringing on the Charter right of freedom of association.

Then in 2012, the B.C. government introduced another, similar law. The teachers went back to court; again, Justice Griffin was assigned to the case. Not surprisingly, she agreed with herself and ruled against the government's "virtually identical" bill.

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The government and the union have filed their appeal documents, and the B.C. Court of Appeal will start hearing the case in mid-October. Whatever the result, the case is important enough and the constitutional rules around collective bargaining rights are sufficiently in need of clarification that the matter is likely to end up at the Supreme Court of Canada. The union's president, Jim Iker, has said, "Our best case is, we win by November, 2015." Win or lose, the timeline is probably optimistic.

The Supreme Court may not render a result that pleases either side. What will not please British Columbians is that any final decision on this matter of constitutional principle is likely years away. Until then, the parties have to give priority to the schoolchildren of British Columbia, reach an agreement that puts the big constitutional questions aside, and sends teachers back to work, soon.

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