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B.C. teachers’ class-size fight headed to Supreme Court

VANCOUVER — A bitter dispute between British Columbia teachers and the provincial government over the right to negotiate class size and composition is headed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

VANCOUVER — A bitter dispute between British Columbia teachers and the provincial government over the right to negotiate class size and composition is headed to 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 took away certain 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 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 law unconstitutional in 2011, the province imposed a new law 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.

A B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled the legislation unconstitutional in 2014.

The dispute led to an acrimonious strike that cut the 2014 school year short and wasn’t resolved until September of that year.

The B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the 2014 decision last April. Four of five appeal judges found the province consulted meaningfully with teachers and the legislation didn’t violate the charter.

A long-term contract has been signed between teachers and the government, and Iker said relationships with the province have improved, but teachers still have a duty to resolve the issue.

He called on the government to increase education funding in its next budget, noting an expected rise in enrolment, including an influx of Syrian refugees.

“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.”

Iker noted B.C. teachers currently have the power to negotiate class size and composition because the 2002 law was struck down and the 2012 legislation was temporary.

Education Minister Mike Bernier said he was not surprised by the high court’s decision to hear the appeal. He said it was a part of the democratic process and the province is confident in its legal position.

“We’re going to continue working on the great relationship that we have right now with the BCTF,” Bernier said. “I’m committed to working side by side with them as we’re doing the great work here in the province of British Columbia, as we’re rolling out the new curriculum.”

He stressed that the court challenge would have no effect on students and said the province had increased education funding by 31 per cent since 2001 to more than $5 billion last year.

As is usual in such rulings, the Supreme Court gave no reasons for its decision to hear the dispute.

The case will be significant because it deals with 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.

“That’s a very large issue and it’s an issue that has significance for every province and for the federal sector,” Bakan said.

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 Supreme Court has also been consistent in saying that appeal courts should defer to findings of fact of trial judges, which the appeal court did not do in this case, Bakan added.

A hearing date has not been set, but Iker hoped it could be held in the fall, with a decision announced next year.