The Opposition New Democratic Party says court transcripts show B.C. Premier Christy Clark was involved in plans to provoke a full-blown strike in the public school system in a bid to gain public support for legislation that would end a labour dispute with the B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF).
"I think that it's reasonable to conclude from the evidence provided – not by teachers or by parents or by anyone else, but by evidence presented by government people in the court – that the Premier and her government set out to provoke a strike to stop kids from going to school, to further Liberal political interests," NDP leader Adrian Dix told the House.
A day after Ms. Clark said she "fundamentally" disagreed with a Supreme Court judgment that her government tried to provoke a strike rather than bargain in good faith, the NDP opposition read the court transcripts in the legislature. The NDP said they show the government's lead negotiator in the talks discussed the labour strategy with John Dyble, the top bureaucrat in the Premier's Office, to prepare cabinet for a briefing.
The province has applied to the B.C. Court of Appeal to challenge the B.C. Supreme Court ruling that the government's legislated settlement of the teachers' dispute was unconstitutional.
The province's lawyers are also seeking to keep under wraps cabinet documents that were tabled in court that deal with the government strategy around the BCTF labour dispute.
But on Wednesday, the NDP skirted that court battle by reading aloud from transcripts of Paul Straszak's testimony about the strategy under cross-examination last September.
Mr. Straszak, the former CEO of the government's bargaining agent, the Public Sector Employers' Council, explained in court that he provided a strategy document to Mr. Dyble setting out how to manage the teachers' labour dispute that was brewing in 2011 and 2012. The Premier is not directly mentioned in the transcripts the NDP released on Wednesday.
At the time, the teachers' union was engaging in job action such as refusing to participate in extracurricular activities. The government wanted to legislate an end to that in 2012, but Mr. Straszak warned that could alienate the public unless the teachers could be goaded into a full strike.
"What we are talking about here is cabinet is going to be in an awkward situation in the context of a low-scale strike, meaning it's going to want to put an end to it, but the public won't necessarily see the need for the legislation because the kids are still in school," he explained in court.
He then was asked how the government intended to address the situation: "We have some tools to increase the pressure on the TF [Teachers' Federation] to escalate the strike," the court heard. Those tools included cutting teachers' pay – a measure that the Labour Relations Board later rejected.
The Premier refused to take questions in the House about the revelations, deferring to Justice Minister Suzanne Anton. Ms. Anton also declined to answer questions: "All of the evidence will be before the Court of Appeal," Ms. Anton told the House. "The Court of Appeal will make its judgment accordingly and we must leave them to it."
As recently as Tuesday, the Premier denied to reporters that her government tried to engineer a full-scale strike. "Absolutely not," she said. "I understand that was the characterization that was set out [in the judgment]. I fundamentally disagree with that, it is not correct, that is one of the many reasons we are going to have another judge take a look at it."
Ms. Clark did not speak to reporters after Question Period. Education Minister Peter Fassbender insisted the judge was wrong. "Clearly this government has worked very hard … to not provoke strikes in any sector and that is the case in this as well. I'm not going to comment on [Mr. Straszak's] testimony."
In announcing the government's appeal of the Supreme Court ruling in favour of the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF), Education Minister Peter Fassbender said it would cost taxpayers "upwards of $1-billion" to restore classrooms to the contract language that existed in 2002.
However, with 60 school districts, each with different needs, budget issues and contract language, the cost of such a restoration is a complex calculation. The BCTF says the province has lost close to 1,400 specialist positions.
School districts are now calculating the implications of the ruling; here is what some of them are saying: