VANCOUVER — A bitter dispute between British Columbia teachers and the provincial government over the right to negotiate class size and composition will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The top court announced Thursday it would hear the teachers’ appeal of a lower-court decision, which said provincial legislation that stripped some bargaining powers did not violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“We never give up,” said B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker at a Vancouver news conference shortly after the decision.
“It’s another important step in this long journey through the court system for us,” he said.
“By unconstitutionally stripping our collective agreement 14 years ago, this government did so much harm to our public education system.”
The province first imposed legislation that removed teachers’ ability to bargain class size and composition in 2002. After a B.C. Supreme Court judge deemed the legislation unconstitutional in 2011, the province imposed new legislation the following year.
Similar to the previous legislation, it restricted school boards’ power to determine staffing levels and establish class size and composition — the number of special needs students in a class, for example, or how many teacher assistants can be hired per student in a school.
The dispute led to an acrimonious strike that cut the school year short in the spring of 2014 and was not resolved until September of that year.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that the legislation was unconstitutional in 2014, but the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned that decision last April. Four of five appeal judges found the legislation was constitutional and ruled the province negotiated with teachers in good faith.
A long-term contract has been signed between teachers and the provincial government and Iker said relationships with the province have improved, but teachers still have a duty to resolve the issue.
“Class sizes are larger, class composition has deteriorated year after year, and thousands of teaching positions were lost,” he said.
“An entire generation of B.C. students has been shortchanged. It’s time that this record comes to an end. Our kids deserve so much more than this government is currently giving them.”
Education Minister Mike Bernier said regardless of the court challenge, the province is working collaboratively with the union to deliver the new curriculum. He said the government’s relationship with teachers has never been better.
“We’ve always said that the BCTF’s application to have their case heard in the Supreme Court of Canada is part of the democratic process. We are confident in our legal position and appreciate any further guidance the court may provide,” Bernier said in a statement.
As is usual in such rulings, the Supreme Court gave no reasons for its decision to hear the dispute. But the case is expected to have significant implications for the way governments negotiate with unions.
“You’re talking about the degree to which collective bargaining and the right to strike are protected by the constitution,” said University of B.C. law professor Joel Bakan.
“The degree to which they’re protected by the constitution determines the degree to which governments have the authority to restrict those rights. That’s a very large issue and it’s an issue that has significance for every province and for the federal sector.”
He said the Supreme Court has taken a robust view of the rights of trade unions to bargain collectively and to strike, while the B.C. Court of Appeal’s decision was of the opposite spirit.
The teachers’ union has 30 days to file its next submissions. A hearing date has not been set, but Iker hoped it could be held in the fall, with a decision announced sometime next year.
— Follow @ellekane on Twitter
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press
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