In November 2016, the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) won their case against the BC government at the Supreme Court of Canada. The victory for teachers culminates a fiery battle, which began in 2002, 14 years ago during my final year as a high school student, and lasted to 2016, my sixth year as a teaching professional and BCTF member. Over the last 14 years teachers, along with students, parents and community members, fought to restore contract language regarding class size and composition guarantees and the right to negotiate, which were stripped away by BC Liberal government legislation. The victory at the Supreme Court vindicates teachers who, continue to assert their right to better working conditions, and better classroom conditions for their students.
Since coming to power in 2001, the BC Liberal government has torn up teacher contracts; eliminated class size and composition language; taken the freeze off of university and college tuition; increased funding for private schools; cut funding for public schools; created dangerous bureaucratic barriers for seismic upgrades; and the list goes on. Despite the difficulties, one thing has been clear: the BC government is not fumbling or making innocent mistakes; their cuts and undermining of public education were about political priorities and interests.
Of course, many of the government’s own decisions have so infuriated people living in British Columbia that the government has had to change their policies or plans – due to protests or upcoming elections. However, with the November 2016 victory their hand has been forced by Canada’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Canada.
A quick timeline of the court actions
January 2002 - The BC Liberal government legislates a three-year "deal" that strips teachers’ contracts of class size and composition guarantees. The "deal" also banned teachers from re-negotiating those issues in future contract talks. That same year, the BCTF took the BC government to court.
November 2010 - The BCTF is at the BC Supreme Court continuing to argue against the 2002 legislation outlined above.
April 2011 - The BC Supreme Court rules in the BCTF's favour. The court agrees that BC teachers have the right to negotiate class size and composition and that the government legislation that stripped teachers of that right is unconstitutional.
April 2012 - The BC government goes back to the drawing board constructing "Bill 22". Despite making only minor and insignificant changes to the 2002 legislation (the unconstitutional legislation), "Bill 22" is passed into law by the BC Liberal government.
January 2014 - The BCTF takes the government to court over "Bill 22". BC Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin is appalled at the government's attempt to subvert the April 2011 court decision by passing virtually identical legislation and rules that their "Bill 22" is also unconstitutional. The BC government realizes it cannot continue down this path and decides to bring its case to the B.C. Court of Appeal.
April 2015 - The BC government wins their case at the BC Court of Appeal. The court overturns the 2014 Griffin decision.
November 2016 - The BCTF appeals to the highest court in Canada, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Canada rules swiftly in favour of BC teachers reinstating the 2014 Griffin decision. VICTORY for teachers and for public education in British Columbia!
Why teachers fight for Public Education
Contrary to what the mainstream media often shows, teachers and the BC Teachers’ Federation are not hotheaded or irrational. Indeed, teachers are extremely patient. We have kept working through torn-up contracts, deepening cuts and even court rulings that found that the laws passed by the BC government violated our rights. We have been pushing, testing, organizing, taking limited job action and occasionally going on strike throughout the years for a fair contract and suitable classroom conditions for our students and ourselves.
A big part of improving classroom conditions is reinstating the class size and composition guarantees that were done away with by the BC government, and are now being re-established after our victory at the Supreme Court. Class size means the ratio of students to teacher, which for high schools is generally 30 students per teacher. Class composition means the ratio of students with learning challenges per teacher and class. Students with various learning requirements need more teacher attention. This becomes near impossible to manage when a teacher has 30 students in a class and 5 or 6 of them also need supplementary teaching considerations, tools, space, time, etc. These two issues have a major impact on students’ quality of learning and our ability to teach effectively.
Many thought it was a waste of money to try to hold the BC government and Premier Christy Clark accountable, however others recognized that the government would continue to strip BC public schools to the bones if we gave up the fight. As teachers, we took on the heavy responsibility to inform the public about what was going on inside BC schools. BC Teachers kept up the fight year after year to get our public education system back on track, despite being labelled as ‘mean-spirited’ or ‘out of touch with reality’ and other smears by the government and media.
Upcoming Provincial Election & Education
On March 24, 2017, CBC journalist Richard Zussman wrote, "The B.C. government is meeting the Supreme Court of Canada order to restore class size and composition to 2002 levels by allocating $330 million in funding. School districts are now set to hire 2,600 new teachers with the additional money." Once more, it is important to emphasize the BC Liberals are only re-establishing the moneys and jobs taken away since 2002, this is not new spending. Furthermore, this money is not about them changing their priorities, it is what they have been forced to do by the Supreme Court of Canada.
On March 11, 2017, Province Newspaper journalist Mike Smyth asked his readers, "Will voters forgive and forget Christy Clark’s war with teachers?" This article is clearly alluding the upcoming May 9, 2017 provincial election, when the BC Liberals are hoping to be re-elected. The current provincial legislature has 47 seats held by Liberal MLAs (Member of Legislative Assembly), 35 seats held by the New Democratic Party and 3 independent MLAs, which means the ruling party (made up of federal Conservative and Liberal party members) holds a very comfortable majority. Since 2001, the BC Liberals have led four consecutive majority governments; unfortunately, it seems unlikely they will be unseated in the upcoming election.
As of March 30, 2017, neither the BC NDP nor the BC Green Party have their full party platform available on their websites. While they do outline some policy points, neither has published their specific promises regarding public education. How can voters, who wish to prioritize public education, have confidence in either of these so-called alternatives? Are voters just supposed to have faith they will prioritize education? In reality, it will be up to teachers and their communities to continue taking action in defence of public education. Whichever party takes office after the BC elections must restores public education to where it was in 2002, but also push ahead for new gains and improvements. It is important to remember our victory is that we have restored contract language that existed 15 years ago, we still have new battles and gains to be made ahead.
The Struggle for Better Public Education Continues
The Supreme Court victory for BC teachers resounded across Canada. The province of Nova Scotia is engaged in a similar battle. The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) has been fighting their provincial government for class-size caps, restrictions on the number of students with "individual program plans" per classroom, and less administrative workload. Unfortunately, because the Supreme Court decision in favor of the BCTF did not actually change any laws in Canada, the government of Nova Scotia has continued on its offensive against public education. In February 2017, they passed Bill 75, limiting teachers’ rights to fair collective bargaining. In an NSTU press release on March 10, 2017, the president Liette Doucet explains, “Teachers across Nova Scotia have been taking a stand for better education, and the government’s response has been to legislate away their collective rights and impose a contract. […] It’s unfortunate that Minister Casey hasn’t been willing to make needed reforms to improve classroom conditions for teachers and students.” The NSTU is also working towards taking the NS government to court over its legislation.
It is not only BC teachers who have successfully challenged anti-public education legislation in court. On April 21, 2017 an Ontario Superior Court Judge, Thomas Lederer, declared that the Ontario provincial government had “substantially interfered with meaningful collective bargaining” in passing anti-teacher legislation, “Bill 115” in 2012. A Canadian Press article explained that the Bill “imposed contracts on teachers that froze some of their wages and limited their ability to strike, so five unions took the government to court.” The judge's decision to side with teachers is another indication that governments across Canada who are planning to ignore the victory of BC teachers at the Supreme Court may find their wrists getting slapped in the lower courts as well.
Because of these growing trends across Canada, BC teachers understand the BC government’s war on public education is not over. For example, the imposition of new province-wide curriculum is under serious fire because there has been little money set aside for teacher training and implementation. If the BC Liberals are re-elected in May with a new four-year mandate, the assault and attack on teachers and public education could very well begin again. What teachers and our supporters have learned through years of struggle is that we must keep our guard up and continue fighting reactionary anti-public education legislation. We must keep in mind that our daily challenges are not personal difficulties; they are social problems that require social and political solutions.
*Tamara Hansen is a high school teacher in British Columbia
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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