By Dean Midyette
The British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) will be back in court, this time in front of the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear arguments from the BCTF and the province regarding whether teachers have the constitutional right to bargain class size and composition. In 2002, then-Minister of Education Christy Clark introduced Bill 28 and imposed a new contract on teachers which stripped class size and composition language from the contract. In a 2011 ruling the courts found that the province did not have the authority to remove these issues from the collective bargaining process and ordered the province to reinstate the language.
In 2012 the government passed Bill 22 into law which included language from Bill 28 that continued to deny teachers the right to bargain class size and composition. The B.C. Supreme Court sided once again with teachers in their ruling on Bills 28 and 22 in 2014 with the B.C. Court of Appeals ruling in favour of the government in April 2015.
The question at the heart of the legal proceedings is whether government has the right to unilaterally strip away provisions in a collective bargaining agreement and whether adequate consultation is enough to satisfy the governments responsibility to bargain. Under the Freedom of Assembly provision in the Canadian constitution the right to bargain collectively is guaranteed.
The ramifications of the ruling are huge. Should the BCTF win the cost to B.C. taxpayers will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually as thousands of teachers and special education assistants will need to be rehired. Classrooms that have closed will need to reopen to accommodate these increases. A BCTF win also sets classroom size and composition numbers back to where they were prior to 2002. The province would then be free to bargain changes to those numbers.
Should the province prevail it will be free to set class size and composition numbers without having to bargain or consult. As a precedent setting ruling, the Supreme Courts decision will impact contract negotiations not just in B.C. but in school districts across Canada.