SCOTCHTOWN, N.S. — A Cape Breton fire chief says members of his department — including one dressed as Santa — were just trying to bring some holiday cheer to a local school when they were politely asked to leave because of an ongoing labour dispute.
Raymond Eksal of the Scotchtown Volunteer Fire Department says three firefighters were visiting Greenfield Elementary School in New Waterford, N.S., to hand out seasonal treats on Monday morning as classes started.
But he says he didn't realize their presence violated work-to-rule conditions being followed by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, which says that during the labour dispute teachers are only focused on teaching and this means no guests in the classroom.
"The principal came out and just informed us she had been contacted by a representative from the union. Someone had called the union I guess and ... she was told we were in violation of the work to rule and we had to leave," explained Eksal.
He added she explained the situation "very politely," and the three firefighters quietly departed.
"The principal was very gracious. It's terrible the way people are going on about this. We were simply trying to be nice to the kids, to have a good relationship with the kids," he said.
Eksal says the firefighters had already handed out candy canes to students in about six classes in the primary to Grade 6 school before the principal asked them to leave.
Teachers in the province are in the third week of a work-to-rule campaign, which has included the cancellation of all extracurricular activities, field trips, concerts and sports.
The firefighter said he knew the Christmas concert was cancelled due to the labour disruption, but had incorrectly assumed dropping off goodies wouldn't pose a problem.
"We normally do the parking for their Christmas concert. We knew that was cancelled due to the work-to-rule, which we could understand ... but I guess there was something lost in the translation ... we didn't realize it was also cancelling Santa Claus," he said.
The president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union said she wasn't available for an interview, but emailed a statement.
"During work-to-rule, teachers are only focused on teaching. This means guest speakers are not permitted in the classroom," said Liette Doucet in the email provided by the union's communications office.
"That being said, at the discretion of the school board, there is nothing preventing Santa from visiting the students during their lunch hour."
The superintendent of the school board was not immediately available for comment.
Doucet noted both sides are back in conciliation now and the union is "hopeful that a fair contract can be negotiated."
The firefighters have been visiting schools in the area to deliver Christmas treats for about 60 years, said Eksal.
He said the incident itself is unfortunate, but he's now equally upset by expanding media coverage that he says is harming the school staff and the children.
He noted the critique of the school's actions didn't begin with firefighters, bur rather from a single, anonymous Facebook posting from someone who was upset the firefighters had to leave.
— By Alison Auld in Halifax