03/05/2012 12:00 EST | Updated 05/05/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C Teachers' Strike: Union Head Apologizes For Child Care Chaos On Day 1 Of Job Action


VANCOUVER - Striking teachers armed with protest signs and axes to grind mobilized around British Columbia public schools on the first of a three-day walkout Monday, while parents and students tried to take the disruption in stride.

Small packs of the unionized workers fanned out under frigid Vancouver rains to demonstrate against the provincial government as its members recommenced debating back-to-work legislation in Victoria.

The province's nearly 570,000 public school students were encouraged to stay home.

"If you're a parent, you really should care for what's going to happen to your kids in school because it's not looking good right now," said French immersion teacher Renald Sans, who joined colleagues to walk circles around an east side elementary school.

"I think we're right and they're wrong and the public should see that."

Grade 6-7 teacher Helen French said that over the 12 years she's worked in the system, she's watched first-hand as resources have been cut and more "special needs" children have been added to her classes.

"In my mind, the only thing that's fair right now would be if they were to put all the money pulled out of the system back in," she said, though noting she would settle for a cost-of-living increase.

"It's my job to advocate for my students, I'll be out here as long as I need to."

The dispute has prompted hundreds of last-minute programs to open for children at community centres while parents work.

In the city's more affluent west side, about two dozen parents who support the labour action gathered in front of Premier Christy Clark's constituency office. They delivered dozens of letters decrying the government's approach to bargaining.

Many brought their small children, who got down on hands and knees to colour in signs with magic markers and cheer with delight as passing trucks honked in approval.

"The government isn't giving enough money to (teachers)," said Grade 2 student Edden Asmoucha, wearing a polka-dotted coat and holding a sign twice her size that read "Negotiate, don't legislate."

The seven-year-old expressed mixed feelings, as her mother hovered nearby.

"It was the teacher's choice that they went on strike," the young girl said in a confident voice, explaining she felt the decision is "sort of good and sort of bad.

"Good, because they're showing their feelings to the government, but bad because I want to be in school."

Just around the corner, the mother of a sister and brother aged eight and six walked their dog in the opposite direction of the vibrant display.

"I feel like at school my kids have been brainwashed a little bit. There's two sides to this story," said the 40-year-old Vancouver resident, who asked to remain nameless because she's feeling pressure from her fellow parents.

Teachers are demanding too much from the government in a time of budget-crunching throughout the country, she said.

"Right now, it's just not a good time," she said.

"There's talk in Ontario that the teachers there may have to cut back a little bit, and the teachers here are comparing what they have here to (those) teachers."

She's said she's upset by the "biased" view that's been pushed on her children.

"I was at the school today and the teachers asked, 'Did you write some letters (to the government)? I said 'Yes,' but I did not."

Yuki Urqhart was at a Vancouver playground with her children as part of a family holiday from their home in Keremeos.

"I'm kind of disappointed, but oh, well, they need money," she said of the teachers.

"I guess they're fighting for their own sake. But really, though, they should think about kids more than money . .I don't take any sides, but really, I'll take my kid's side to say 'Hey, why don't you guys keep teaching good things for kids,' not about money though, right?"

Father Rob Whiton, who was also at the park, said he understands the teachers' concerns and said he supports them.

"I think the bigger class sizes and the conditions of the schools in general need to be upgraded and although the wage demands might be a little excessive, I do think both sides should negotiate in good faith and get it resolved."

Earlier in the day, the head of the B.C. teachers' union apologized to parents who made alternative care arrangements for their children.

But Susan Lambert said her members felt they had no other choice and would take actions to "resist vigorously" the provincial government legislation that forces an end to the job action of 41,000 teachers.

"We don't come to this in any cavalier or light fashion," she told reporters just before the school bell rang at the empty school. "I apologize to parents for the inconvenience."

Lambert said the strike is the last resort for teachers to protest Bill 22, which will force an end to their job action, impose a cooling off period and bring in a government-appointed mediator.

"We just couldn't take it anymore, we just had to say something and we had to say it in a way that maybe this government finally will listen."

The union's comments angered B.C. Education Minister George Abbott, who said the union is completely manipulating and distorting the picture for its members when it claims the bill means larger class sizes.

But he said the strike itself was probably a good thing.

"The union is getting an opportunity to do some venting," Abbott said. "I do hope that people can recover some sense of proportion. I've been quite surprised at the level of vitriol, name-calling and the like that we have seen during this dispute."

Lambert said the teachers want an independent mediator to find a compromise. She denied that teachers' demonstrations in front of schools amount to a picket line, which has been barred by the Labour Relations Board.

"What people are doing is demonstrating."

Students will be without instruction for the next three days, head back to the classroom on Thursday and Friday, and then most will be off for spring break.

The legislation will be debated this week in the legislature and, when passed, will impose heavy financial penalties if defied by the union or individual teachers.

The federation has been staging limited strike action to back demands for better wages and benefits since September, but voted to strike last week when Abbott introduced the legislation.

Teachers last walked off the job in an illegal strike that lasted two weeks in 2005.

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