Supreme Court of Canada Decision in The BC Teachers’ Federation Case (Part I)

This Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada held its hearing of an appeal by the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), the union that represents teachers in British Columbia’s public school system.

This ongoing case – which started in 2002 – involves several actions by the BC provincial government in its collective bargaining for a contract with the BCTF, primarily around the government’s decision to pass legislation declaring that some items would not be bargained, and removing those same items from the collective agreement that was then in effect. The BCTF opposed both of these changes. Later, there were also issues around the government’s conduct during bargaining.

The BC Supreme Court twice ruled in the BCTF’s favour, once in 2011 and again in 2014. The BC government appealed the 2014 ruling, and the BC Court of Appeal overturned that ruling. The Court of Appeal decision was the basis of the BCTF’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

I think it’s fair to say that all parties involved with this case expected that a case this complex would entail a lengthy hearing at the Supreme Court, followed by several months for the nine judges to review the arguments and write their decision. However, much to everyone’s surprise, the hearing lasted just under three hours and the judges deliberated for only about 20 minutes –  and then issued an oral decision upholding the original 2014 decision. Seven Supreme Court justices were in favour of the decision, and two dissented.

The Court will post a more lengthy written decision within the next two days. I’ll write more about this case when the decision is posted, because the court’s reasoning will be very important. This case may set some very influential precedents right across Canada, in defining the boundaries of governments’ dual roles as legislators and as employers. Governments, unlike private sector employers, have the authority to pass laws that affect union-management bargaining and collective agreements, and this case may help clarify when governments may or may not use that exceptional power.

Even though there are lots of other very important things going on in the world right now – pay attention to this decision. Its impact could be felt for a long time to come.

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