There's fresh hope for mediated talks to end the B.C. teachers strike after Education Minister Peter Fassbender said both sides are in preliminary talks with veteran mediator Vince Ready.
The minister told CBC TV Ready spoke to both B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker and government negotiator Peter Cameron Thursday and were expected to formally meet.
"He is trying to get the parties close enough where he can play a meaningful role," Fassbender said of Ready. "He will make that decision."
By Friday morning, education ministry officials were only saying that the parties had agreed not to comment, and would not confirm talks are underway or describe the status of any sessions.
Ready previously began exploratory talks two weeks ago but declared the two sides at impasss and walked away from the table Aug. 30
The latest developments came after Fassbender on Thursday began edging away from from his long-held position not to legislate striking teachers back to work.
"The reality is, government has the ultimate ability to legislate in any situation," Fassbender told Canadian Press in an interview when asked if he would open the door to the option. "We want a negotiated settlement."
He had consistently vowed not to impose a settlement on teachers, saying a negotiated deal is critical to break the "dysfunctional" labour-relations cycle.
Union members on Wednesday voted 99.4 per cent to approve the B.C. Teachers' Federation proposal to end their strike if government accepts binding arbitration.
Fassbender wouldn't say whether he's had discussions with the premier about recalling the legislature early or how government would respond if the strike continues into the fall sitting of the house, set for the first week of October.
Premier Christy Clark said she thinks she can get a negotiated deal before she travels to India for a trade mission that's scheduled to start Oct. 9.
"I'm very hopeful that schools will be back, in fact, I'm certain schools will be back in session by the time I go to India," she told reporters.
A slate of other B.C. unions also pledged more than $8.5 million for a teachers' federation general hardship fund earlier in the week, which will be handed out as loans and grants while teachers carry forward without income.
"It seems to me that we're inching towards them being legislated back," said political watcher Norman Ruff, University of Victoria professor emeritus. "You could argue it's going to be a short-term necessity, but in the long run it just fuels the problem that has existed for decades."
The government and union have a long history of struggle over control of educational policy, with the union striking more than 50 times in the past 40 years and at least three settlements imposed by government.
But the public's chief concern isn't how, but when, the dispute concludes. The government is now seen to hold the key to the deadlock, said political science Prof. Hamish Telford, at the University of the Fraser Valley.
"The public looks at government and says, 'Well, you do have the ability to solve this, even if you don't want to pay what the teachers are asking, you can legislate. So it is within your power to do it," Telford said.
"The government may now be feeling a certain amount of pressure from the public that they've got to move on this."
The legislature is set to resume on Oct. 6, and although standard business is slated to occur, back-to-work legislation could be introduced and passed quite quickly by the majority B.C. Liberals, said the professors.
– with files from the Canadian Press