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How BC Got It So Wrong on the Royal Holiday

Five provinces found a way to keep schools and government open while still recognizing the Queen’s death.

Paul Willcocks 16 Sep 2022TheTyee.ca

Paul Willcocks is a senior editor at The Tyee.

John Horgan’s government got it massively wrong in deciding to shut schools, courts and government offices for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.

But it also wasn’t quite the boneheaded decision some critics claim.

The government was in a box, mainly because of Justin Trudeau’s decision to declare a federal holiday, but also due to public sector collective agreements and its relationship with those unions.

Take the BC General Employees' Union contract, which applies to 33,000 government workers. The contract includes a list of 12 current stats. But it also says workers will get “any other day proclaimed as a holiday by the federal, provincial or municipal governments.”

Horgan could have decided to keep government open. But under the contract terms that would likely have meant double time for anyone who worked, plus another day off in the future. At a very rough estimate, about $6.6 million in extra pay plus all the banked days.

The biggest complaints — and damage — have come from extending the holiday to schools. Parents were left scrambling to find child care, or cancelling their own work and accepting the lost income. Children barely into the school year face an unwelcome disruption.

It’s a big pain for some 550,000 children and their families, and the biggest consequences fall onto those who can least afford to deal with them — single parents, people with low incomes, those without family supports, children already having trouble settling into the school year.

In theory, the government could have kept schools open. The BC Teachers’ Federation contracts don’t provide similar provisions for new statutory holidays.

But that would be tricky on two counts.

First, the government would have to acknowledge the decision to shut down most operations was about money, not, as some comms person wrote in a quote attributed to Horgan in a news release, “a national day to reflect on the incredible life of Canada’s Queen and the longest-serving monarch in British history.” (In fairness, the release also noted the government had “advised provincial public-sector employers to honour this day in recognition of the obligations around federal holidays in the vast majority of provincial collective agreements.”)

And second, the decision would irk some teachers as the government and BC Teachers’ Federation continue negotiations on a new contract, perhaps making the talks a little more difficult.

Mostly, blame Trudeau. He should have declared Monday a National Day of Mourning without making it a holiday for federal employees and triggering the “us-too” clauses in B.C. contracts. That would also have kept operations like the already overloaded and backlogged Service Canada centres open.

But the B.C. government, even given the reasons for shutting down, got it wrong.

Despite the cost and hassles for management, government should and could have stayed open. Quebec, Ontario and the three Prairie provinces have all declared a day of mourning without closing schools or offices, accepting some additional costs. They put the interests of citizens first.

And the B.C. government has decided to keep the health-care system open, even though the Health Employees' Union contracts call for time-and-a-half and a day in lieu for existing and new statutory holidays.

Much of the attention has rightly focused on schools. But the closure will cause real harm in many ways. People who have waited months for a court hearing, for example, perhaps on a critical issue like child custody, will have suddenly learned this week they’re back in the seemingly endless queue. Others who have been waiting two months for their driver’s test through ICBC, some counting on a licence to increase their work options, are now back in the waiting game.

And across government, work will be delayed.

This isn’t a holiday — federal or provincial — that anyone was clamouring for. A Leger poll found almost half of Canadians said the Queen’s death had no impact on them; another 24 per cent described it as a minor impact. (One per cent didn’t know she was dead.)

Five provinces with 80 per cent of Canada’s population found ways to avoid shutting down government operations, including school systems.

The B.C. government should have been able to do the same.  [Tyee]

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