Supreme Court ruling could mean more teaching staff on Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii schools are likely set for a staffing boost after a surprise Supreme Court ruling.

Haida Gwaii schools are likely set for a staffing boost after a surprise Supreme Court ruling.

On Nov. 10, Canada’s top court found the B.C. government acted unconstitutionally when, in 2002 and again in 2012, it passed laws that removed B.C. teachers’ right to negotiate class size and composition.

Delivered straight from the bench, the 7-2 decision had not been expected until spring.

“The teachers are really pleased with the ruling,” says Steve Querengesser, president of the Haida Gwaii Teachers’ Association, who said the news brought smiles, even tears to school staff rooms.

“It’s been a long fight, and knowing it’s the final step makes it that much better.”

The legal battle over class size and competition started nearly 15 years ago, when B.C. Premier Christy Clark was education minister. It has involved multiple court cases, education bills, teachers’ strikes, and appeals.

Besides negotiating the maximum number of students in kindergarten, primary, and secondary classes, teachers wanted to retain the right to negotiate composition the number of special-needs students in a class with a single teacher.

A related issue was the ability to negotiate how many specialist teachers such as special education or music teachers are hired for a given size of school.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation estimates that about 3,500 teaching and support staff jobs were cut because of the provincial changes in 2002 and 2012 jobs for teachers, education assistants, school librarians, and school counsellors.

Restoring them will likely require funding of between $250 and $300 million a year, the union says.

“This is going to be the beginning of a shift,” said Querengesser, noting that in the last 14 years, some students have gone from kindergarten to Grade 12 in what the BCTF has said are underfunded schools.

What dragged the situation out, he said, was that after its 2002 education bill was found unconstitutional in 2010, the B.C. government responded by passing a nearly identical one in 2012.

“We’re frustrated with the fact the government was willing to spend resources on costly legal battles that lasted nearly 15 years when they could have been putting that money towards the needs of B.C. public schools,” said Querengesser.

Querengesser said the Haida Gwaii school district has generally been good at negotiating the number of students in each class, though a few classes have gone over the size limit for a single teacher working without an education assistant.

Local schools are most likely to see a staffing increase due to a revised policy on class composition and specialist teachers, he said.

A written ruling is expected from the Supreme Court in the next few months. It will likely affect not only B.C. education policy, but other union negotiations across Canada.

“A government can’t just strip collective agreements based on a new public policy they pass,” said Querengesser.

“This will have longstanding ramifications for all unionized employees. They can trust that negotiations will be done in good faith.”