By Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press
Richmond: Negotiators for striking British Columbia teachers and the province huddled separately in a Richmond hotel for a fifth day Monday in an effort to reach an agreement that would herald the start of the school year for half a million students.
Bargaining teams for neither the B.C. Teachers’ Federation nor the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association stopped to speak to a crush of media stationed outside, awaiting information on what appeared to be a mediation process aimed at ending the dispute that has kept students out of classrooms for four weeks.
Mediator Vince Ready was spotted several times walking a long corridor between the two camps, while teachers’ union president Jim Iker and Peter Cameron, negotiator for the government’s agent, also occasionally emerged with papers and binders in hand.
At one point, Ready paced outside, speaking on the phone.
“It’s too early to tell,” he said, when asked if he was expecting any news later Monday. “I’m not going to say anything.”
An undeclared media blackout remained from talks that began late Thursday, although it’s believed that new proposals were being tabled Monday, the longest session the warring sides have sustained since the strike began in June.
Teachers launched full-scale job action two weeks before the summer break.
Last week, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation voted to end the dispute if the government agreed to binding arbitration. However, Education Minister Peter Fassbender had repeatedly rejected that option even before the vote, saying a negotiated settlement was the way to go.
Premier Christy Clark said Thursday that she was determined to get a deal before leaving on a trade mission to India on Oct. 9, three days after the legislature resumes.
Over the past week, unions across the country have donated or loaned millions of dollars to a hardship fund for B.C.’s teachers, who have lost thousands of dollars in salary and have been picketing without strike pay since June.
Class size and composition have been major stumbling blocks in the dispute.
Last January, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled the provincial government violated teachers’ rights in 2002 when it declared they could no longer negotiate the size of classes or the number of support staff in classrooms.
The province is appealing that decision, with a court date scheduled for next month.
Tensions have run high on all sides. On Sunday, a teachers’ rally in downtown Vancouver was disrupted by a new parents’ group demanding an end to the strike.
Charities that rely on engagement with public school students have also been unable to kickstart their campaigns.
Organizers for the Cops for Cancer cycling-based fundraiser fear they have lost $350,000 from missed opportunities in early September.
Ron Kuehl, vice-president for the Canadian Cancer Society, said the strike was having “unintended consequences.”
“Our school visits are a pivotal part of the spirit of this fundraiser and the students and teachers help us to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars every year,” he said in a news release.
The annual event sends involves 107 police officers and emergency services workers pedalling across the province to fight children’s cancers.
“It’s a huge disappointment and setback,” Kuehl said.
© 2014 The Canadian Press