Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

BC's Education Feuds: The Last 30 Years

Three decades of slashed funding and 'disrespect' means no recess for teacher-government dissent. Last of two.

Crawford Kilian 7 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

image atom
Thanks to long-ago B.C. premier Simon Fraser Tolmie, Christy Clark has 80 years of teacher-government feuding to contend with.

[Editor's note: See the first of this two-part series, which details the first 50 years of teacher-government battling in B.C., here.]

If you were a B.C. educator in the summer and fall of 1983, or a firefighter, or a cop or social worker or civil servant, you still remember the feelings.

You felt nausea when you heard what Bill Bennett's Socreds brought down on July 7; existential dread when you realized their new laws were going to screw your career and personal life beyond all recognition; joy when you gathered at the old Empire Stadium, the cops and firefighters marched in, and thousands in the stands stood up to applaud; righteous anger when you demonstrated, 60,000 strong, around the Socreds' convention at the Hotel Vancouver.

Larry Kuehn, who was president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation in the early 1980s, remembers those years very well. For him, July 7 was the pivotal moment: 28 "restraint" bills introduced that would roll back most of the gains working people in B.C. had made since the end of World War II.

It hadn't come out of the blue. Kuehn traces the change to the 1970s. For a quarter-century after the war, resources had moved toward working-class and middle-class families, sparking a golden age when a family could live on one wage-earner's income, buy a house, and send the kids to college.

The golden age ended with wage and price controls in the mid-'70s, the oil shock, and Nixon's withdrawal from the Bretton Woods agreement. Thereafter, Kuehn argues, resources would move back toward capital, and working families would see no more real improvement in their incomes from then until now.

At the same time, Kuehn told The Tyee, the BCTF was changing. It had been focused on improving salaries for its members, but in the 1970s -- with B.C. teachers the best-paid in Canada, and with some of the biggest classes -- it shifted from bargaining salaries to improving learning conditions. It was also trying to build a better society for its members and their students.

Charles Ungerleider, who served as deputy minister of education under the NDP in the 1990s, agrees that the BCTF changed in the 1970s: "The Federation wanted to remake society through education. It continues to pursue that."

Thomas Fleming, professor emeritus at UVic and B.C. education historian, says local teachers' associations had more bargaining power than the BCTF until the late '60s and early '70s. But he traces the change to the bureaucratization of the schools in the mid-1940s: "Bigger schools and school districts led to more labour-relations issues," he told The Tyee. He believes the Ministry of Education began to lose touch with the schools and to pay increasing attention to post-secondary. School boards and teachers had to become more militant about their needs.

Two conflicting visions

Kuehn sees the conflict in B.C. between educators and politicians as based on two issues. First, the schools are supposed to prepare students to be workers, valuable human capital. Second, the schools should prepare them to be active citizens, informed proprietors of a democratic society.

"Both are functions of the public schools," Kuehn says, "but government emphasizes one and teachers emphasize the other." So the government wants standardized exams to give employers a predictable workforce. Teachers want individual development of students who will be highly unpredictable citizens.

The 1980s were a long decade of conflict between the two points of view. B.C. unions formed the solidarity movement, a homage to the Polish shipyard workers who were challenging the Soviets. After teachers went out and the whole province seemed to be on the edge of a general strike, B.C. pulled back with the so-called "Kelowna accord" negotiated between Bill Bennett and IWA leader Jack Munro.

But the struggle continued. Kelowna had offered teachers some "assurances," including no reprisals against striking teachers and keeping money saved by the strike inside the education system. Those assurances soon vanished. The school wars resumed with low-level skirmishing -- and occasional battles like the May 1985 firing of the Vancouver School Board for refusing to submit a budget within Victoria's guidelines.

Bill Vander Zalm, after a controversial stint as education minister, had not run in the spring 1983 election. Then Bill Bennett abruptly announced his resignation in 1985. Teachers who had been planning an anti-Bennett campaign in the next election were caught off-balance, and again when Vander Zalm swept back into politics and won another election for Social Credit.

Another bizarre twist

In yet another bizarre twist to his career, Vander Zalm as premier turned out to be pretty good for the schools. He appointed ex-principal Tony Brummett as minister of education. The Sullivan Commission sparked a lively and constructive debate, with the BCTF actively involved. Brummett brought in the "Year 2000" program aimed at implementing Sullivan's recommendations.

Then Vander Zalm's government imploded. Brummett left the education portfolio. His successor, Stan Hagen, quietly smothered some key aspects of the Year 2000.

Elected in 1991, Mike Harcourt's NDP finished off the rest of Year 2000 in 1993. The New Democrats were now determined to put their own stamp on the schools.

The Socreds were in disarray, but right-wingers were enthusiastically bashing the schools again. NDP Education Minister Art Charbonneau responded with a new commitment to letter grades, standardized exams, and "higher standards." The high-school dropout rate remained about where it had been since the 1960s.

Education funding continued to be a problem, especially in the recession of the early '90s. But while the BCTF continued to call for more money for the schools, it didn't attack the NDP. "We were at the table talking with the government," Larry Kuehn recalls. Simply being consulted made a difference. It hadn't happened much under the Socreds, and it wouldn't happen under the Liberals after 2001.

Charles Ungerleider says he made a point, as deputy minister of education, in meeting with BCTF leaders. He also revived the Education Advisory Council as a monthly forum where teachers could discuss substantive issues. But he also noted an anti-BCTF attitude among senior ministry officials -- a kind of culture that mirrored the teachers' suspicious attitude toward government.

Fleming agrees that the ministry, and successive governments, have been wary of the BCTF. "Regardless of government," he says, "the BCTF has served as the official opposition." He recalls that the Socreds in the early '80s "went into the bunkers" against the teachers: "They disrespected teachers, and took joy in the dismissal of teachers' aides."

Unconstitutional? So what?

The Liberals under Gordon Campbell triggered a "New Era" that was a lot like the 1980s. Bills 27 and 28, introduced on Jan. 25, 2002, overturned the relative stability of the 1990s.

Like the 1983 restraint bills, the suddenness and surprise of these new laws did as much as their content to alienate teachers and trustees. No one had been consulted, and the laws tore up existing contracts.

Christy Clark, then minister of education, energetically supported the bills and went on to become a lightning rod not only for teachers but also for school boards and parents.

The BCTF responded to Bills 27 and 28 with a string of protests and lawsuits. Not until April 2011 would the Supreme Court of B.C. finally declare the laws unconstitutional.

In that decade, educators and Liberal governments had plenty of other opportunities to keep the relationship toxic. They battled over the College of Teachers. Districts with dwindling enrolments got inadequate budgets and school closures. It was increasingly clear that B.C. education was systemically underfunded.

And B.C. teachers are now paid far less than their colleagues elsewhere: Vancouver teachers' top salary is currently $74,353 compared to Calgary's $95,073. (Charles Ungerleider points out that Alberta teachers, under conservative governments for decades, have done much better on bread-and-butter issues than their B.C. colleagues. He suspects it's largely due to maintaining backchannel communications with government -- which the BCTF, he says, hasn't done.)

A war-like legacy

This hot war/cold war between governments and teachers has now gone on since at least the Kidd Report in 1932, almost 80 years ago. Better said, it's been a conflict between a business culture that sees education chiefly as tax-subsidized worker training, and a teachers' culture that sees education as preparation for citizenship and a way to build a better society. In theory, these should be complementary visions. In practice, they have been bitterly opposed.

The business culture, usually in political power through the Socreds and then the Liberals, generally sees education as an expense to be kept down. It regards assertive educators as hostile. The ministry's internal culture seems to support this view.

The teachers' culture, only rarely in power through the NDP, sees education as an investment that pays off socially, culturally and politically as well as economically. It too regards its adversaries as hostile. Ironically, each side's hostility strengthens the other's. Fleming argues that the BCTF's ability to elect or oust the government intimidates both parties.

Until both sides can break out of their cultures, B.C.'s school wars will continue.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Education

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about Your Municipality’s Water Security?

Take this week's poll