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British Columbia Ruling on RCMP’s right to unionize could influence B.C. teacher dispute

British Columbia teachers protest for better student learning conditions outside the cabinet offices of the provincial government in Vancouver, British Columbia March 18, 2013.

ANDY CLARK/REUTERS

The Supreme Court of Canada's ruling giving Mounties the right to unionize could have implications for the dispute between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the provincial government.

As a direct result of last week's ruling, Chief Justice Robert Bauman of the B.C. Court of Appeal has invited the teachers' union and the government to file further written submissions in the protracted case now before the appellate court.

The province's new submission must be filed by Monday; the BCTF's by Feb. 2.

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In the Mounties case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 6-1 that the RCMP's internal program for negotiating workplace issues – called the Staff Relations Representation Program – was constitutionally inadequate. As well, federal public-sector labour legislation precluding Mounties from being able to apply for statutory bargaining rights is in violation of the right to freedom of association, the Supreme Court ruled.

The battle between the teachers and B.C. government has turned on whether the government illegally stripped teachers of their rights to bargain class size and composition in legislation introduced by the provincial Liberals in 2002.

Glen Hansman, first vice-president at the BCTF, said he was pleased to see the Supreme Court of Canada side with Mounties.

"Our highest court has confirmed that section 2(d) of the Charter – freedom of association – guarantees a meaningful process of collective bargaining," he said in an e-mailed statement.

Fiona McQuarrie, an associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley's School of Business, said the ruling confirms that meaningful collective bargaining is one of the functions that must happen for the freedom of association to be fulfilled.

"I think the BCTF would likely interpret this Supreme Court ruling in the RCMP case as making an even stronger case that, to fulfill the freedom of association that's guaranteed, there has to be meaningful collective bargaining between the parties – not just that there is a collective bargaining relationship," she said.

Sara Slinn, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, said the ruling "significantly clarified" the 2011 decision, Attorney-General of Ontario v Fraser. At that time, the Supreme Court of Canada said that while the constitutional right to free association guarantees "meaningful" negotiations take place between employers and workers, it is not intended to police the mechanics of how those negotiations take place.

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Critics charged that that decision left the definition of meaningful collective bargaining open to interpretation and gave employers the upper hand.

"The government was absolutely relying on a certain interpretation of the Supreme Court of Canada decision of Fraser to challenge what was a very strong win by the BCTF," Ms. Slinn said. "I think the [RCMP] decision, and its clarification of Fraser, will make it extremely difficult for the government to succeed arguing its interpretation of Fraser."

Last January, a B.C. Supreme judge concluded – for the second time – that the 2002 legislation introduced by the B.C. government stripping teachers of certain collective bargaining rights, including the right to negotiate class size and composition, was unconstitutional. Justice Susan Griffin found the government had bargained in bad faith and deliberately planned to provoke a strike. The province was fined $2-million in damages.

In October, a lawyer for the provincial government had argued before a B.C. Court of Appeal panel that consultations with the union were enough to uphold educators' Charter rights. A lawyer for the union countered that the province believes an impasse in collective bargaining justifies using legislation to get a settlement, as long as it first engages the union in a policy discussion.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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