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New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is pictured during a news conference after a meeting with Canada's provincial premiers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada Dec. 2, 2019.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

The New Brunswick government on Friday narrowly passed changes to legislation to limit the number of nursing home workers who are able to go on strike.

The changes to the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act passed by a vote of 24-22 as the three members of the People’s Alliance party sided with the minority Progressive Conservatives.

Nursing home workers and their supporters chanted and heckled from the legislature’s public gallery during the vote, and were ordered removed by the Speaker.

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They went on to voice their discontent outside, with one union leader saying the wording of the act is identical to legislation being challenged in the courts in Ontario and Nova Scotia.

CUPE New Brunswick president Brien Watson said a similar challenge could be launched in New Brunswick.

Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, said the People’s Alliance had traded its support for her group in order to get the Tories to move on the reclassification of paramedics.

“They negotiated one group of workers against another, and shame on them, because today they could have done the right thing on behalf of workers and seniors by standing up and defeating Bill 17,” Teare said.

But People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin defended the vote by his members.

“We’ve not changed our position. I’ve made it very clear from day one that anything to do with confidence bills we would support. We’re not going to go to an election over a labour dispute,” he said.

Austin did seek some amendments concerning binding arbitration, but said in the end he doesn’t believe it will make much difference.

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“I believe the arbitrator is going to do exactly what the arbitrator is going to do, with or without this bill,” he said.

Premier Blaine Higgs said he was pleased the legislation was passed and he wasn’t surprised by the show of opposition from union members, both in the gallery on Friday and over the last year.

“I sincerely believe that CUPE decided this is the ground we’ll stand on. It was during an election period so we’ll make it an issue during an election period,” he said.

The nursing home workers have been without a new contract since 2016, and they say it will be years before new deals are reached because of the changes in the legislation.

The legislature adjourned Friday for the Christmas break, leaving a number of other key bills to wait until it resumes March 10 for a provincial budget.

Among those bills was proposed legislation that would make vaccinations mandatory for children in schools and daycares unless they have a medical exemption.

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The current wording of the bill would invoke the notwithstanding clause to shield the legislation against charter challenges.

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