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Mediator walks away, ending hopes teachers' strike will end before school starts

Mediator Vince Ready arrives to meet with B.C. Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker and B.C. Public School Employers' Association negotiator Peter Cameron in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday August 28, 2014. Ready has walked away from talks between British Columbia teachers and their employer, smothering hopes of parents that the school year would start on time. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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Mediator Vince Ready arrives to meet with B.C. Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker and B.C. Public School Employers' Association negotiator Peter Cameron in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday August 28, 2014. Ready has walked away from talks between British Columbia teachers and their employer, smothering hopes of parents that the school year would start on time. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

RICHMOND, B.C. - Veteran mediator Vince Ready has walked away from talks between British Columbia teachers and their employer, smothering parents' hopes the school year will start on time.

The province's 40,000 public school teachers went on strike two weeks before summer vacation in June, and the ongoing job action has many worried the start of school may be put on hold indefinitely.

After Ready left the bargaining table Saturday, Peter Cameron, the government's negotiator, said the current round of talks was over.

Ready is widely regarded as one of Canada's top labour troubleshooters, and many had held out hope his involvement would finally break the impasse between the two sides.

He brought Jim Iker of the teachers' union and Cameron together for two days of exploratory talks, but walked out on the third.

But as the talks wrapped up, Cameron said Ready felt the two sides were still too far apart for mediation to begin, which means the school year is now unlikely to start on schedule Tuesday.

"This is effectively terminated," he said. "We think we have been very frank with Vince."

"It will not start on time," Cameron said, referring to the school year.

Cameron said both sides will wait for Ready to determine when they are close enough to resume discussions.

Ready said he tried to establish a framework for mediated negotiations, but the effort failed.

"I just see no basis at this point for meaningful negotiations or mediation, so I've just declared an impasse," he said. "I just don't see an agreement here at this point."

Despite Ready's gloomy assessment, the BC Teachers' Federation indicated it wasn't giving up.

"As things stand now, the strike will continue, but we are still determined to get a deal before Sept. 2," Iker wrote in a press release.

Iker, however, was clearly less optimistic when interviewed immediately after talks fell apart Saturday, admitting the chances of the school year starting on time were remote, at best.

"As of right now, school will not be starting on the second of September, though our teachers would love to be back at work," he said.

Iker also accused the province's negotiators of not being prepared to reach a fair settlement for students and teachers.

The B.C. Public School Employers' Association has been bargaining on behalf of government throughout the dispute.

"The BCTF team tried to kick-start meaningful talks by dropping some proposals entirely and reducing others substantially," Iker wrote. "Unfortunately, the government did not indicate they were willing to make any meaningful moves in return."

Premier Christy Clark took to social media, saying government wants to have a fair deal as soon as possible, but it must be affordable for taxpayers.

"We want a deal that gives teachers a raise and invests in classrooms, but it must also be in line with settlements for other unions," she tweeted.

Prior to discussions with Ready, Iker and Cameron met with Education Minister Peter Fassbender, who proposed that both parties put aside the most contentious issues and start mediation.

The issues Fassbender referred to are teachers' grievances stemming from an ongoing legal battle between the union and government.

Earlier this year, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in favour of the union, saying the province violated the union's bargaining rights when it removed provisions related to class size and support from the teachers' contract in 2002.

The government is appealing the decision.

Teachers have asked the government to set aside $225 million every five years to deal with contract grievances related to the court case, but the government wants to suspend the possible impact of the grievances until the appeal process has finished.

Iker said after the talk on Saturday that teachers were willing to reduce that fund to $100 million.

When Fassbender proposed leaving grievances out of bargaining, and allowing the courts to settle the matter, he argued it would allow negotiations to focus on the key issues.

Iker, however, dismissed that proposal after Saturday's talks.

"Does the government really expect that teachers would bargain away everything the B.C. Supreme Court has already awarded us?" he wrote in a release. "And what future decisions might bring?"

There was little progress during the summer toward resolving the key sticking points — wages, class size, and support staff levels.

The government has said it will not legislate teachers back to work, but has proposed giving parents of children aged 12 and under $40 a day to help with daycare costs should the strike continue.

-By Steven Chua in Vancouver.

(The Canadian Press, CKNW)

Note to readers: A previous version of this story wrongly stated teachers proposed a $225 million fund per year. In fact, it is every five years.

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