NEWS
02/12/2017 16:14 EST | Updated 02/13/2018 00:12 EST

Nova Scotia government to face resistance in legislature in teachers dispute

HALIFAX — The Nova Scotia government is poised to face resistance from all sides when the legislature reconvenes to push through a resolution to the ongoing contract dispute with the teachers union, but ultimately, most everyone concedes that the Liberal majority will probably have the final say.

Premier Stephen McNeil is recalling the house for an emergency session Monday evening to introduce a bill that will "bring an end" to bitter standoff between the provincial government and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

The province's 9,300 public school teachers and both provincial opposition parties are vowing to try to delay the legislation. 

Union president Liette Doucet issued a statement Sunday demanding that teachers get an opportunity to speak at a legislature committee meeting where members of the public can weigh in on the merits of whatever legislation the government brings forward.

"The teachers who are having their rights taken away deserve the chance to look their elected officials in the eye and speak their mind," said Doucet. "It's the people's house an members of the public should not be discouraged from taking part."

McNeil issued a statement Saturday that said after three failed tentative agreements it is clear that negotiations have reached "an impasse." He said legislation is needed to pass a bill that would "bring an end to this dispute as soon as possible." 

Both provincial opposition parties have pledged to do everything within their power to stymie the bill through substantive debate and procedural delays, but acknowledged that these tactics will likely not be enough to override the Liberal majority.

"They have all the cards," NDP leader Gary Burrill said in an interview Sunday. "What we're able to do is quite minor and yet we feel it's democratically very important for us to register our revulsion."

The New Democrats and the Progressive Conservative Party have both thrown their weight behind Doucet's call for the McNeil government to schedule public hearings outside school hours so teachers can attend.

"Any teacher, student or parent who wants to address the law amendments committee should get the opportunity to do so," said Burrill. "The public is incensed about this ... If (the government is) going to circumvent the democratic process of negotiating the contract, then they had better open up the process of hearing from the public."

A winter storm is expected to blanket Nova Scotia in up to 60 centimetres of snowfall in some areas, leading Doucet to voice concerns that teachers in rural parts of the province won't be able to travel to Halifax and have their say because of poor road conditions.

"This is not an emergency," she said. "If the premier wants to use his majority to pass a bill restricting the collective rights of teachers, he should at least have the patience to allow (union) members to have their say."

The blizzard weather may also hamper a rally scheduled to be outside the legislature building, according to PC leader Jamie Baillie, who suggested the ill-timed forecasts may be more than a coincidence.

"McNeil knows that what he's about to do is not fair to the teachers or students of the province and he's hoping to bury it under the snow storm," Baillie said in an interview Sunday. "We should be making it easier for people to express their views, not harder."

Later Sunday Baillie issued a statement calling for McNeil to postpone the resumption of the legislature in the interests of the safety of legislature staff who would have to brave a potentially fierce winter storm to get to work.

"The PC Caucus is also concerned for the safety of students, families and teachers who may travel to the legislature for the bill's introduction tomorrow. Numerous school boards have already cancelled classes," Baillie said.

It's not the first time the government has flexed its muscles to try to impose a settlement.

In early December, the government closed schools on two days' notice as it called an emergency session of the legislature to impose a contract as the teachers started a work to rule campaign. But then, the government reversed itself and said the union had addressed its safety concerns amid a disagreement over exactly what had been discussed.

Opposition politicians said at the time that the legislative manoeuvre was scuttled by dissenters within the Liberal ranks.

Baillie said that these internal divisions may be "fleshed out" in the legislative battle ahead.

All parties involved in the union-government melee have said they're acting in the best interest of students. The premier said that the union's job action has taken a toll on children and their families, while Doucet said the province is ignoring teachers' concerns about classrooms conditions.

The union's work-to-rule edict stipulates teachers should only report for work 20 minutes before class starts and leave 20 minutes after the school day ends.

The job action has been controversial for many parents and students, given the fact that field trips, Christmas concerts and sporting events had to be cancelled.

When the latest tentative contract was reached Jan. 20, the teachers suspended the work-to-rule campaign. Doucet said it is set to resume Monday, but it remains unclear what form it will take.

Doucet said Friday the union would have to review whatever legislation the government brings forward before deciding whether to turn to the courts.

The teachers most recent contract expired in July, 2015 and negotiations have dragged on for more than a year. The teachers have been in a legal strike position since Dec. 5, after voting 96 per cent in favour of strike action.