The BC Liberals need to end the teachers dispute – the sooner the better.

I’ll say it again. In the dispute with the BCTF, the BC Liberal government is in trouble. During negotiations, the Liberals’ unceasing public pronouncements front-end loaded the ideas of an “affordability zone” and a settlement “consistent with other public sector unions”. And they repeatedly bargained in the press. This strategy has painted negotiations into a corner. It is now hard for either party to bend without losing face.

And the narrative is bogus anyhow. Negotiations with the teachers can not really be compared to other public sector union negotiations. First of all, the teachers have not had a pay increase for 3 years. And second, the teachers’ situation is complicated by the government’s own twice-repeated charter violation coming back to bite it, as well as the ongoing underfunding of school districts, putting public education into full-on crisis mode. The situation has gotten so bad that the Vancouver School District, in order to be able to continue offering its world class band programs, has had to resort to the temporary measure of spending its contingency fund.

The Liberals want the teachers to give up millions of dollars in court-ordered restitution for charter violations, while getting nothing in return. They feel that they can flex their muscle and grind down the union on this issue. It won’t happen. Having won a stunning court victory, the teachers can claim moral high-ground. They will never give up their quest for compensation. And it’s not greed that motivates them, but a sense of outrage that is revisited every time they look at their class composition. The cuts have gone too deep.

No question, the Liberals can eventually wear the union down financially, and the teachers will have to go to work (though it’s likely that before this were to happen, other unions would weigh in on the Charter violation issue). How many lost school days it will take for this to happen is anyone’s guess. The government has an endless supply taxpayer funds that it can wield on legal appeals and on populist stunts (e.g. a $40 a-day daycare benefit for parents with children under 13). Meanwhile, the union has finite reserves of cash, and can’t last forever.

But to what end would the government do this? Eventually it will have to open schools. Eventually the teachers will have to give up their full walkout and go back to work. But the climate, which has already become acrimonious after 12 years of Liberal de-funding of schools, would become so terrible that it would be very difficult to sustain a vibrant school system. Failing to achieve a deal at the end of a full-scale walkout, the teachers would revert to a slow-burn work-to-rule paradigm which would disrupt school for a long time, and prevent the government from being able to implement systemic change. Without the cooperation of professionals, the government can not run an education system. The students would continue to lose out – big time.

It’s likely that many people would fault teachers for all this disruption, but teachers are well-informed and well-educated, and they have an acute sense of justice. They are not likely to be easily cowed by the opinion of people outside the dispute.

Right now in negotiations, the teachers are willing to compromise on some of the court-ordered compensation. Eventually, the full weight of the court decision will come down on government, and by extension on the citizens of BC. The Liberals would be wise to quietly settle while there is time for people to forget this mess before the next election. To drag it through a low scale job action and court appeals will ensure that the issues follow the Liberals well into the next election campaign.

Furthermore, the casualty count of this battle has already begun. Education workers should be getting paid, and they’re not. Students should be in school, and they’re not. 

 

 

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Examining the Tsilhqot’in ruling: We have it backwards.

When you think of aboriginal land title, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? The September 26 ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada regarding land title of the Tsilhqot’in nation in BC has certainly set precedent. What does this mean for the First Nation? What does it mean for Colonial Canada?

It seems that the answers on most people’s mind have to do with business. On CBC’s “The National”, Peter Mansbridge announces how the decision “could have huge implications right across Canada.” He then goes on to report how those implications will “touch government, industry, and any future economic or resource development on First Nations land, including the newly approved Northern Gateway Pipeline.”

The crafting of this report is problematic in two ways. First, the report mentions “The Northern Gateway Pipeline” as if it is a fait accompli. It is not. There is no pipeline. Northern Gateway is a proposed name to be given to a proposed pipeline that an oil company would like to build. It’s only an idea on paper. To talk about it in this way reinforces in everyone’s mind that it is an inevitability. Once it’s named, it’s real. At best, we should be saying, “a pipeline that Enbridge Corporation would like to build.”

The second, and larger problem with the report is that it ignores the people that the ruling most affects –the Tsilhqot’in themselves. What is the implication of the ruling for them? Who knows? Who cares? The report bypasses them completely, and jumps right into talk about the possible effects on business. And the more in-depth coverage of the issue by CBC’s Chris Brown is no better, focusing pretty much exclusively on a pipeline debate. Need I remind everyone that there currently IS NO proposal for an oil pipeline to go through Tsilhqot’in territory. Is there no other meaning to the Supreme Court’s decision than the thwarting of a multinational business interest?

It’s not just CBC that is reporting this way. The Huffington Post reports much the same way, as does The Globe and Mail, which contains “Northern Gateway Pipeline” in its headline.

This is a concerning mindset in Canada. We have it backwards. We look at legal precedent, and government in terms of how they will affect business. We seem to measure everything in terms of “the economy”, forgetting that “economy” is a means to an end, and forgetting that in the current economy there are winners, but also many, many losers, including future generations who will have to suffer the effects of accelerated climate change and pollution. Really, we should be asking, “How will this business affect the future living conditions of all First Nations people, and all Canadians in general?” We should measure business in terms of its effects on our endeavour, and not endeavour in terms of its effects on business.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Tsilhqcot’in land title is the culmination of generations of struggle of a people. To limit its significance to the building of an oil pipeline not even near the land in question, is an insult to all those who struggled. What is their story? Their lawsuit was not crafted as an attempt to stop an oil company. Why so much focus on that?

 

Comparing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Adolf Hitler

It’s a big-time taboo to compare any leader in a democracy to the notorious Adolf Hitler. People are justifiably loathe to ascribe to anyone the pathology that would lead Hitler to commit such terrible atrocities. I suggest that by NOT making comparisons, we are putting ourselves more at risk for some version of the same thing happening in our own place and time.

When we think of Hitler, we think mainly of the ultimate atrocity that he committed: genocide against the Jews. The horror of it is how coldly systematic and how terrible it was. Compared to this atrocity, the other transgressions of Hitler are diminished. But we mustn’t forget those other transgressions. We mustn’t forget that Hitler’s ability to create a totalitarian dictatorship depended on a lot of initial groundwork.

I don’t actually believe that the prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, is a deranged psychopath of the order of Adolph Hitler. Nonetheless, he is the leader of a nation, and as such, wields power that has the potential to cause much harm, as well as much good. Therefore, we are fools NOT to compare his proclivities to those of world leaders throughout history – including Adolf Hitler.

Here is a laundry list of things that Harper has done that scare me:

1. He has used the media extensively to advertise his initiatives, and to discredit his adversaries. This is called propaganda.

2. He has allowed the surveillance of his own people, including using a state-sponsored spy agency.

3. He has demonstrated extremely right of centre policy attitudes.

4. He has identified a religion as the biggest threat to Canadian security (“Islamicism”).

5. He has used legislation to attack trade unions.

6. He has tried to politicize and discredit the judiciary.

7. He has espoused extremely unorthodox science in order to squelch environmental issues.

8. He has suppressed intellectuals, especially those who might stand in the way of his policies.

9. He has an almost pathological obsession with controlling the dissemination of information.

10. He has increased penalties for crimes.

11. He has covered up manipulations of elections.

12. He is currently creating policy that will give him an electoral advantage.

13. He has increased the militarization of the country.

14. He has, through an advertising campaign, and through funding (and de-funding) initiatives, tried to re-create the history of Canada as a militaristic history.

These are but a few observations. As I have already said, I don’t believe that Harper is a mad dictator like Adolf Hitler, but I DO compare his behaviours to Hitler’s. Why shouldn’t I? And I DO think that in many ways, he is taking Canada down a very unhealthy path.

I haven’t bothered to substantiate my claims with links or references. I would appreciate measured comments that take issue with my concerns, as much as I’d appreciate comments supporting them.

 

The real meaning of the BC Supreme Court’s decision: Your government broke the law again.

There seems to be confusion in public perception of the court’s latest decision in the BC Teachers Federation vs. Government of BC case. I am particularly disturbed by what I see in the press – or rather, by what I don’t see. Many reporters have repeatedly characterized the Court decision as simply a political victory for one side, as if the BC Supreme Court is on the side of one party or another. This is a great disservice to the Court, and a distraction from the truth.

I have read and re-read both court rulings that the BCTF claims as victories. And indeed, they vindicate the union in the sense that they uphold a Charter right that had been denied teachers by the government: namely the entitlement of workers to negotiate collectively (i.e. as a union) for their contracts, and indeed, both rulings chastise the government for bargaining in bad faith and for flouting the law. But even though the most recent decision benefits the BCTF, it only does so in the sense that it restores something that was taken away. It is unfair for anyone to characterize the Court’s decision as being “in favour” of either the BCTF or the government. And it is an insult when reporters see the Court decision as a mere volley in the political tennis match between the two parties.

The Court has ruled on an issue of law, and not on a political issue. When the press glosses over this fact in an effort to be “balanced”, it creates a situation in which truth is equivocated. The presumption of innocence, which we hold so dear in our justice system, necessitates that the burden of proof for any plaintiff be very heavy. It is extremely rare that a  court of law mistakenly finds for the plaintiff. Therefore, it must be assumed beyond any reasonable doubt that the Court got it right. In fact, the government has not objected to the factual basis of the court’s decision – only the hardship that the decision presents.

In considering the evidence, Mme Justice Griffin, as all judges do, suspended her biases and loyalties, and poured over the history of legal precedents that apply to this case. The court did not take sides in education policy debate at all. The judge’s loyalty is strictly to the word of law as articulated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and in clarifications made in case law over the years.

This loyalty to the law becomes obvious when one reads the Court decisions. In the ruling that strikes down Bill 28, the Court affirms that its decision is not political, as it concedes that the constitutional violation by government was not in preventing the BCTF from getting its way on the issue of class size and composition; but rather, it was in preventing the BCTF from being allowed to address the issue. The court framed it thus:

” [179] In the context of labour relations, the duty to bargain in good faith is concerned with the parties’ intentions during bargaining, not with the outcome of the positions taken. Parties can take ‘hard’ positions, hoping to persuade the other side to agree. But parties bargaining must have a ‘genuine intention’ to try to reach agreement. If they pretend to try to reach agreement but have no real intention of doing so, this is bad faith ‘surface bargaining’…”

What is at issue in BC, then, is that the Court (in these and other cases) has found that the government has violated unions’ constitutional rights. It therefore is the responsibility of the press to present the “news” of the court’s decision in the proper light: to wit, we are living in a province in which the government has broken the law repeatedly. BROKEN THE LAW! The issue is far more concerning than the issue of how to fund an education system. A government that breaks the law is undemocratic. The press needs to present this fact clearly.

And this is far beyond a BC issue or a 2014 issue. The court’s jurisdiction is not limited to its province or its time. The precedents in law are nationally applied, and referred to from this day forward. This time it is convenient, maybe even popular, for the government to violate labour laws. If it can get away with this, one must begin to wonder what else it might try. Given the propensities of our prime minister to shut out the press, it is conceivable that a government might one day try to keep reporters out of our court rooms or out of parliament.

Justice Griffin reminds us, “The Charter protects against unconstitutional actions by the state.” Well we have a “state” that has violated the constitution numerous times. And yet I do not see this being presented as an issue by the press. Our collective yawn on this matter is dangerous to democracy. It invites tyranny. They have come for the labour unions. Who is next?