With students and parents preparing for an extension of the ongoing teacher strike into the new school year, a public spat erupted Thursday after the province's Education Minister said negotiations are impossible because the leaders of the B.C. Teachers' Federation are at a conference in Kamloops.
Despite a media blackout instituted by mediator Vince Ready last week, Peter Fassbender pinned blame on the striking teachers in an early morning interview.
"If they are up there, they aren't able to be at the table," he told CBC Radio.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
Negotiators in the six-month labour conflict have only met twice this summer, once in early July and again in early August. However, BCTF President Jim Iker and the government's lead negotiator have met in private a number of times between those two meetings.Several hours after Mr. Fassbender spoke, Mr. Iker called the minister's statement a clear breach of the media blackout policy adopted by both sides.
"It is unhelpful that the minister is again playing politics in the media instead of allowing bargaining to resume behind closed doors," he said in a statement.
Mr. Fassbender told The Globe and Mail on Thursday afternoon that he was "absolutely not violating the blackout," but was informing parents in his role as Education Minister. He said his goal was to talk about a new website with information on the province's pledge to provide parents with a $40 daily subsidy if the strikes go beyond the first day of school.
"I would suggest Mr. Iker get in touch with our chief negotiator; it isn't just Mr. Iker but also his negotiating team that are all up there," he said.
After a BCTF executive meeting on Wednesday and Thursday, part of the union's normal summer conference to train local officers, a special assembly was called for Friday. Mr. Fassbender said he hoped that union negotiators would come out of that meeting and start negotiations.
"Us being up here in the Okanagan has nothing to do with meetings not taking place," a BCTF official said Thursday. "Jim [Iker] has said he is available at any point and the bargaining team is available at any point."
Despite Mr. Fassbender's repeated pledge that the province's negotiators are ready to meet "24/7," the union has stated that it will only negotiate after a number of preconditions set for those talks by the governing Liberals are removed.
Mr. Fassbender said he couldn't comment on the preconditions due to the media blackout. However, a BCTF official said that what the government had requested was a "preagreement that would set the outcome of the talks."
No date for future negotiations has been set. Mr. Ready has said he will begin to mediate the dispute when he feels both sides will be ready.
A number of community centres across the Lower Mainland have started advertising day camps, expecting that no settlement will be reached in the next 11 days.
On Wednesday, the superintendent of the Vancouver School Board warned parents in a letter that no decision on the start of classes should be expected before Aug. 29. Superintendent Steve Cardwell apologized to parents for what he called a "frustrating, disappointing and worrying time for everyone."
Students at the Prince of Wales Secondary School were informed that a mid-September camping trip was cancelled.
"That trip was a tradition for generations," said Jing Wang, a student at the school who will also be the Vancouver School Board's student trustee as of September.
"It wasn't official that school wasn't starting and then the teachers cancelled the trip due to the strike," she said. "It seems to me that teachers are losing faith and hope, they don't seem to be trying any more."