09/17/2014 06:15 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:57 EDT

B.C. Teachers' Strike 2014: At What Cost?

David Sacks via Getty Images

Here we are, waiting with bated breath while the B.C. Teachers' Federation seeks to ratify the settlement reached just about 24 hours ago. And I am wholly unprepared for what is to come.

Normally, I eagerly await the beginning of school, buying school supplies (I always pick up a few office supplies for myself, because a compulsive list-maker needs notepads), finding a new outfit for each child, and spending time sorting out snacks, re-setting sleep schedules and returning our home to an oasis of relative calm from the usual summer chaos.

But not this year.

Instead, I purchased the barest minimum of school supplies to get my kids started off for the year, and I am left wondering when precisely that will be. Friday? Monday? Sometime around the 23rd? I haven't bought any new clothes, because whatever money we have has to last us until Hubby's next paycheque comes in, whenever that is.

Back-to-school shopping was replaced with food stockpiling; my daughter needs a new bike, but we needed to make sure we could pay rent and utilities to keep a roof over our heads in the face of being virtually penniless by Sept. 15th. Why do I sound so alarmist? It's simple: I am the wife of a B.C. public school teacher.

We are still working to re-pay 11 years of student loans for my husband's three degrees. I carry the remainder of the collective debt I shouldered in my divorce eight years ago. There is no nest egg, no rainy day fund.

We live simply. We don't have cable; we eschewed a landline to reduce our phone expenses; and we don't go to the movies unless it's at the second-run theatre, and even then, only on cheap Tuesday.

Our kids have handheld devices thanks to the largesse of grandparents, when they upgraded their own phones. Our home is filled with second-hand furniture and electronics, and our big expenditure this year was a $70 splash pool so that we wouldn't be paying out of pocket to take the kids to the rec centre. We buy our gas and dairy south of the line, because that's how we can afford gas and dairy.

We cancelled the kids' martial arts lessons, and they have not been replaced with other activities. My daughter would dearly love to take piano lessons, but I just can't justify the expense right now.

'Real life comes first'

We have had to significantly curtail our activities in a hobby group that serves as a stress release for us for the past several years. The unofficial motto of our group is "Real life comes first," and we have really put that to the test this year, forgoing events and delegating responsibilities because it just wasn't financially responsible to go.

We are careful with our money. I have a calendar where I write down every bill, every due date, every time money comes into our house. I painstakingly monitor when each gets paid to ensure that we are never at risk of having our power cut off, or of getting an angry call from the landlord.

These past three months have been an exercise in spinning plates, deciding what bills must be paid now and which can sit for a month; making those excruciatingly embarrassing phone calls to utility companies to ask for extensions, explaining our circumstances and hoping for an understanding and lenient person on the other end of the phone.

I can't help but shake my head, because shouldn't teachers with their professional training be able to make ends meet better than this?

We have four children. The oldest is 12 and will enter middle school this year; the youngest has just turned four and is at home for another year. The agreement we made was that while the kids were small, one of us would be at home with them. My husband's earning potential is higher, so it was a no-brainer. Even so, this summer, I have secured some very part-time work, and I am earning some money doing commission crafts. I have also made a preliminary inquiry about a job that would give more hours, and hopefully, keep the wolves from the door for long enough to see a resolution to the dispute.

My husband would have sought out another job in the interim, but no employer in his right mind would hire someone who would leave as soon as the labour dispute ended.

The full gamut of emotions

I've seen my husband run the full gamut of emotions during this whole thing. Many days, I've seen him bring home a bag weighed down to the breaking point with marking. I have watched him formulate letters to parents, and I have watched him organize strike shifts; I have seen his face light up when reading a student's essay, and I have seen him despair in the face of the government's contempt for his profession.

It breaks my heart to see that a government that is supposed to be representative of the people of B.C. would expend so much energy and taxpayer dollars vilifying the very people who educate our children and bring forth generation after generation of critical thinkers, decision makers, artists, athletes, and public servants.

To watch as they seek to dismantle one of the best education systems in the world in order to churn out worker drones for their pet projects. The spin doctors did their job well for the government, because I lost count of the times I heard or saw someone spout off about how much money teachers make, complain about how much time off teachers get, or how greedy teachers are for asking for a raise that amounts to less than the cost of living.

Financial remuneration was just a small part of the negotiations; this went far deeper than simply how much to pay teachers. This struck at the core of what we stand for as a democratic society.

I have lost all faith in the provincial government. I have no belief that they have any interest whatsoever in preserving a strong public education system, or with truly working with education professionals to facilitate that. What I saw was my children being denied their right to an education while the BC Liberals tried to either starve out teachers, or wait out the appeal of Justice Susan Griffin's decision next month.

How long will it be before the next public employees' union is in the cross hairs of the BC Liberal machine? How long will they be on the picket line to protect their constitutional rights? How many others will come out to lend support, to stand with them in solidarity? How long must we all suffer at the hands of people who have no thought for the people they purport to serve?