Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil acknowledged Friday his government needs to do a better job helping teachers in classrooms, but remained steadfast against amending major portions of a proposed law that would impose a four-year contract on them.
Thousands of teachers protesting Bill 75 crowded around Province House and packed surrounding streets after they walked off the job in a one-day strike, the first in their union's 122-year history. The bill is inching toward becoming law as the opposition parties call for votes on each clause.
McNeil said he listened to people speak about the bill at public hearings Thursday. Included were dozens of teachers who told the law amendments committee how they struggle with an ever-increasing workload and inadequate resources.
"I've heard from people who are watching, teachers who are watching it from home, [who say] 'This is my reality,' as well friends of mine, people I know," McNeil said.
McNeil agreed in the afternoon to consider a modest NDP amendment around appointing an arbitrator to consider recommendations by the new council on classroom improvements.
But he was firm there would be no other changes to the legislation despite other proposed amendments to the bill, he said.
"I made a commitment to our team, to teachers, to parents, communities. We want to invest in classrooms. We just need … to make sure it's exactly what's going to make the difference teachers want us to make."
The premier said the teachers' stories will help shape the improvements his government plans to make.
'This is a big, big deal'
The routine passage of a bill from one stage of the law-making process to another turned anything but routine for Liberal MLAs who needed police help to leave Province House Friday afternoon.
McNeil had a full escort as he walked out of the legislature into an awaiting black SUV, which carried him away from throngs of protesting teachers.
His Liberal caucus left about 45 minutes later to jeers and shouts of "shame."
Bill 75 now goes to third and final reading starting at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, when the House sits again.
MLAs have been in the legislature almost around the clock this week debating the bill. The legislation follows three tentative agreements rejected by union members in the last 15 months.
"This is a big, big deal. I've never seen an issue where so many Nova Scotians are engaged in the actual process of the legislature," Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said Friday.
"It is the fourth year of the Liberal government's mandate and I know they have some nervous MLAs, so the best way to stop a bad thing from happening is for their constituents to reach out to them."
McNeil said the purpose of the legislation is to end a work-to-rule campaign that the province's 9,300 teachers have been participating in since the first week in December.
Liette Doucet, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said Friday teachers were promised change during the last provincial election and feel betrayed.
"At a time when badly needed reforms are required to improve our public education system, Stephen McNeil would rather pick fights with unions than fix problems," she said in a statement.