HALIFAX — Confusion reigned at the Nova Scotia Legislature Monday after the Liberal government temporarily recessed a sitting aimed at imposing a contract on public school teachers.
Shortly before the sitting was to begin, Liberal House leader Michel Samson told reporters the bill would be delayed to allow for hastily organized talks about safety concerns around student supervision during the teachers’ work-to-rule action.
“There are ongoing discussions to address the safety concerns that were identified. We will wait to see how those discussions unfold in the next number of hours,” said Samson. “Based on how those discussions go, we’ll determine whether we proceed or not.”
Classes were cancelled Monday for all students at public schools across Nova Scotia. Teachers were being allowed into the schools, but students are being kept out after the provincial Liberals announced the closures Saturday.
A Nova Scotia Teachers Union source originally confirmed talks were taking place, but following the recess vote in the house, union president Liette Doucet said she was unaware of any formalized talks. Neither Premier Stephen McNeil nor Education Minister Karen Casey were on hand for the house vote.
Doucet said the government had reached out to union officials for some clarification about student safety under work-to-rule, but that was all.
“The negotiating team is here in the building,” said Doucet. “We were in the gallery and we haven’t had any discussions today.”
Doucet said nothing had changed as far as she knows.
“We’ve given directives to our teachers. There are no safety concerns as far as we’re concerned, we would never put student safety in jeopardy.”
Doucet said the union’s provincial executive would be meeting later Monday to discuss its next move in light of events.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the government is scrambling in the face of public pressure and he believes pressure from Liberal backbenchers, given the government’s sudden announcement followed a caucus meeting.
“Obviously the government is in chaos, the government MLAs are freaking out and their leader is not even here to lead them in this effort,” said Baillie.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said it wasn’t immediately clear to him what the government is trying to do.
“All I can know for sure is the level of unprecedented public fury has surely registered itself on them.”
Education Minister Karen Casey had previously said schools could be closed for up to a week, depending on the passage of a bill that would impose a contract on the union representing 9,300 educators in the province.
Casey said the closures were needed to ensure student safety, citing risks posed by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union’s work-to-rule job action that was due to take effect Monday.
The NSTU had directed its members to do the minimum amount of work required under the current agreement, including arriving at school 20 minutes before classes begin and leaving 20 minutes after they end.
Casey’s announcement of the school closures left parents scrambling to find childcare with less than 48 hours notice.
Dozens of protesters, including some students and sympathizers from other public sector unions showed up at the legislature Monday to voice their discontent with the government’s apparent move toward a legislated settlement to the long-simmering contract dispute.
Some carried signs saying “Let Teachers Teach” and “Negotiate Don’t Legislate.”
Contract negotiations between the province and the NSTU fell apart Nov. 25 after the sides agreed to meet with a conciliator following failed attempts to convene a conciliation board and to take the dispute to mediation.
The union membership has twice rejected a contract offer that the union executive recommended, and voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike.