Teachers happy to see victory at Supreme Court

Christy Clark's government's appeal axed by Canada's top tribunal

Murray Helmer

While British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) president Glen Hansman is cheering a Nov. 10 Supreme Court of Canada decision as a “massive victory” for the union, Cariboo Chilcotin Teachers’ Association (CCTA) president Murray Helmer’s comments are much more low key.

After only 15 minutes of deliberation, seven of nine judges ruled in favour of the teachers in overturning a Court of Appeal decision made in 2015 and reinstating the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision of 2014.

Hansman says the province’s public school teachers are “delighted” that governments in B.C. and all across Canada “must now respect bargaining rights and collective agreements.”

The BCTF hopes that those students coming up through the system will now begin to see classroom conditions and support levels improve, he adds.

However, Helmer says he will be more hopeful when that actually happens, as it’s not if they come back – it’s when they come back.

The CCTA president points to Hansman’s comment about the unconstitutional legislation in 2002 that allowed government to underfund education in B.C. for 14 years, resulting in an “entire generation of students having lost out.”

“I mean, it is a good news story for education, for students and for teachers – it’s just making sure it happens in a timely manner and that government [accepts] this is something they are going to have to do.”

After hearing Premier Christy Clark say her government is willing to negotiate the details, he is concerned the B.C. Liberals might believe anything is left open for debate beyond the timing of restoring the lost teacher positions, he explains.

Helmer says he hopes to have more clarity sometime this week with the expected release of the actual wording of the Supreme Court ruling.

“As I understand it, this puts the language that was removed by legislation in 2002 back into effect immediately, [yet] I’m hearing from the government that they are prepared to sit and talk about what class size and composition will look like now.

“That’s a very different take on what I believe the outcome should be.”

Helmer adds the BCTF has steadfastly refused to negotiate these issues in contract amendments and money offers from the Ministry of Education after a 2010 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that stripping them out in 2002 was unconstitutional.

“We said ‘if this decision comes down, if it’s in our favour, we will take that win. We will not negotiate that away now’.

“The government has been very clear all along that this is not something they want in place, and the Supreme Court has said ‘it is in place’, and I don’t think there is a lot of wiggle room.”

Helmer adds allowing any negotiated agreement reached with a government to be overruled later by new legislation renders the “whole collective bargaining process as pointless.”

Another concern is where all the former support teachers trained in assisting classroom teachers in educating students with special needs and accommodating smaller class sizes may have gone, he explains.

“I’m hoping there are enough teachers in the system to actually be able to meet the demands that returning to the 2002 [contract] language is going to put on the system.”

He says School District #27 already “has a hard time attracting enough teachers” to have fill its on-call and specialist positions.

“The next challenge will be attracting enough people here locally when they’ll have virtually any district in the province with the same demands, if not greater demands … places like Surrey or Vancouver will be looking for maybe 50 times more teachers than we will be.”