British Columbia

Court fight over mediator begins in B.C. teachers' dispute

The mediator in a teachers' dispute that has disrupted the whole school year is an advocate for the government rather than a skilled negotiator who can help both sides reach a deal, a lawyer for the teachers' union has suggested.
Charles Jago is inappropriate as a mediator, a lawyer for the B.C. Teachers' Federation argued Thursday. (UNBC)

The mediator in a teachers' dispute that has disrupted the whole school year is an advocate for the government rather than a skilled negotiator who can help both sides reach a deal, a lawyer for the teachers' union has suggested.

John Hodgins is asking a judge to quash the mediator's appointment, saying Charles Jago is too biased and inexperienced for the job.

Hodgins said Thursday the government's appointment of Jago in March was botched from the start because a 2006 report he wrote on the public education system was in tune with the Liberals' position on the current teacher contract issues.

He said a report Jago has been instructed to complete by June 30 on unresolved issues and recommendations should be held back until B.C. Supreme Court Judge Hope Hyslop makes a decision on the appointment.

But government lawyer Karen Horsman said the union's argument of bias should be dismissed.

"Such a challenge should only be made on the basis of objective evidence that rises above speculation and this evidence, in my submission, my lady, doesn't."

Horsman said Education Minister George Abbott appointed Jago based on his impressive background as president of the University of Northern B.C. from 1995 to 2006 and his Order of Canada for his work in education.

"His recommendations to the minister will be non-binding and will be intended only to inform the minister," she said.

"He isn't concluding a collective agreement for the parties. He's assisting and trying to reach consensus and failing that, making recommendations to the minister."

Horsman suggested the B.C. Teachers Federation is more opposed to legislation, which besides resulting in Jago's appointment, will not allow teachers to strike for the duration of a cooling-off period that expires on Aug. 31.

"The BCTF was critical of the legislation as a whole and they considered the process as a whole to be biased," she said.

Abbott has staunchly defended Jago as a qualified mediator and maintains he's prepared to legislate an end to the dispute if the mediation effort fails.

Seniority rights

But Hodgins argued Jago has no experience in the kindergarten to Grade 12 system and that he isn't known as a mediator.

He said Jago's 2006 report included his position on teachers' seniority rights, professional development and evaluations, and that the conclusions match the objectives of the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, the government's bargaining agent.

The issue of seniority is a major stumbling block in the dispute, with the union saying the ministry wants to strip seniority protections from collective agreements while Abbott has said he wants to standardize the wording for all districts.

The word suitability has become prickly for both sides, and Hodgins said the union is worried principals will hire teachers based on certain conditions that will trump seniority.

He said teachers don't trust Jago because his 2006 report sides with the government on such a thorny issue.

"He's just wrong in what he said, demonstrably wrong, and we argue that the conclusions Jago reached are demonstrably incorrect."

Hodgins said Jago had already been asked to take on the mediation job in early February, before the government asked the union, on March 17, for names of possible mediators who could deal with the contract issues.

The dispute remains unresolved after 78 bargaining sessions.

The union has asked for a 15 per cent wage hike while the government is holding to its net-zero policy, which applies to all public-sector employees.

Horsman said 132 agreements have been made under the mandate, for 182,000 workers across B.C.

Teachers have refused to participate in extracurricular activities as part of their job action and in some cases long-established year-end student outings have been cancelled.