As the clock ticks down to a Monday walkout by B.C. teachers, the strained relationship between government and teachers shows no signs of mellowing.
In Victoria, Education Minister George Abbott released letters sent to him from Grade 1 students urging him to stop Bill 22, new education legislation.
The letters, with students' names blacked out, were sent to the minister by a Victoria teacher who said her Grade 1 class discussed the legislation on anti-bullying day.
"I was both very sad and very disappointed to see something like that," Mr. Abbott told CBC Radio on Friday. "I've been quite concerned with the level of vitriol associated with this dispute, but to see the politicization of Grade 1s was just extremely disappointing and disconcerting."
The Greater Victoria school district is investigating the incident and the teacher has acknowledged an "error in judgment."
The letters became public as teachers ready for a province-wide walkout.
Teachers are expected to be off the job Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, following a recent Labour Relations Board order that gave the British Columbia Teachers' Federation permission to escalate job action. Under the order, teachers can be off the job for three days the first week of stepped-up job action and one day a week after that. The union is required to give two school days' notice of strike action.
Under limited job action that began in September, teachers have not been doing some administrative work, including filling out report cards, but they have continued to teach.
But with talks stalled over wage issues, the BCTF sought permission to ratchet up the pressure. The province, meanwhile, introduced legislation that would prohibit strike or lockout activity, impose a cooling-off period and bring in a government-appointed mediator. The mediator would be bound by the government's net-zero mandate, which requires any wage increases to be offset by cuts in other areas.
Mr. Abbott has said the government doesn't plan to hurry its new education bill into effect, saying the complex legislation merits full debate. The New Democratic Party has said it will oppose the bill, but that opposition is expected to slow, not stop, the process.
Bill 22 is designed in part to respond to a 2011 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that found sections of Bill 27 and 28 – legislation the Liberal government brought in a decade ago as part of a sweeping overhaul of the public sector – were unconstitutional.
The new legislation restores bargaining rights for class size and composition that were stripped under the 2002 legislation and also includes a $165-million Learning Improvement Fund.
At a Special Education Association conference in Vancouver on Friday, teachers said case loads have skyrocketed even as resources, including special needs teachers, were cut over the past decade.
The new fund will put only $30-million into schools this year and "even if it were $165-million in additional funding, it is a mere drop in the bottom of a very dry bucket in terms of returning the level of funding that existed for students prior to our illegal contract stripping of 2002," Stephanie Koropatnick, a teacher and SEA member, said Friday at a press conference.
Debate on the new bill is scheduled to resume on Monday. But even before it comes into law, the province is already anticipating a legal challenge.
In an interview this week, Mr. Abbott said, "We are convinced that they [the BCTF]will be taking this legislation to court. I don't think there's any question about that. And it has been structured in a way that we believe is capable of withstanding what is an inevitable challenge to it."
Teachers are expected to hold a rally in Victoria on Tuesday and to be waving signs and handing out leaflets at various locations on Monday. Under the LRB order, teachers can not picket school sites. Schools will be open for administrative staff but parents have been urged to make alternative arrangements for their children.
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria