B.C. Premier Christy Clark stopped in Cranbrook on Thursday, July 10, first speaking at a special combined Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club lunch, then making an announcement about energy efficiency programs at B.C. Hydro’s Cranbrook headquarters.
But first, the Premier was greeted by a group of more than 150 protesters outside the Heritage Inn, where the luncheon was held. Consisting of teachers from Cranbrook, Kimberley, Creston and Invermere, along with CUPE and Steelworkers supporters, the group marched from the Tamarack Centre along both sides of the strip to the Heritage Thursday morning to meet the Premier.
Negotiations for a new collective agreement between the B.C. government and teachers’ union have stalled after a teachers’ strike and lockout closed schools down early for the summer.
Shelley Balfour, president of the Cranbrook and District Teachers Association, said the rally was a call for the Premier to take action to alleviate the hostility.
“Her kid is in private school. That’s all well and good. These kids are not in private school; their parents can’t afford it, nor do they want to put their kids in private school, nor should they have to. It should be a public education system, well funded like it used to be,” said Balfour outside the Heritage.
She called on the province to return to the bargaining table “in good faith and with good intent”.
“What they say in public and what they are doing in private are two very, very different things and I need the public to understand that.”
Inside the Heritage, Premier Clark was welcomed by a sold-out crowd of almost 200 people who attended the luncheon.
She received a standing ovation upon her arrival and her speech was punctuated by several rounds of applause as she spoke about the benefits of living in B.C., and how the province is working hard to leverage B.C.’s natural resources, Pacific access and its citizens to build a stronger economy.
Premier Clark pointed out that two out of every three dollars in B.C.’s economy comes from natural resources that are supported in rural communities like Cranbrook.
“It is so important that the people of our province understand where it is that we get the money for those lattes, where it is that we get the money for the wealth that we enjoy in urban B.C. every single day.”
She congratulated Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett on helping to balance the B.C. budget, and said she supports his outspoken personality.
“I think that the way to succeed in politics is to say what you think and to try and be honest with people, and to just put it out there in lots of ways and to sometimes do things that people don’t expect you to do. That’s why I welcomed Bill Bennett back into cabinet.”
But the pressure was turned up during question period, when Premier Clark was asked the anonymous question, “Why is it that your government has decided that the children of B.C. are entitled to less?”
She referred to a Conference Board of Canada assessment that found B.C. has “the best education system in the country”, before addressing the teachers’ job action.
“We have put about $1.2 billion on the table with the teachers union. That’s a combination of wages and support for improving class composition, making sure that there are the kinds of special needs supports in classrooms to make it easier for the kids to learn and for teachers to teach,” said Clark.
“We think that it’s possible for the teachers’ union to find a way to come to an agreement on some of these issues in a way that’s affordable for taxpayers, and a way that’s fair to all of the other public sector workers out there who have already settled for a similar amount to what we are offering to the teachers’ union.”
She reiterated the province’s call for a 10-year agreement with B.C. teachers.
“If all we do is every two or three years bicker about wages, we spend not enough time talking about quality education for kids. We have to find a way to get kids out of the middle of this fight all the time.”
The Premier was also asked about the status of the Cranbrook homeless shelter project — she said the province is trying to find funding for it — and the recent Supreme Court Aboriginal land title decision.
“Certainty and clarity are good, and the Supreme Court decision reflects lots of things that we are already doing in B.C. and we are going to continue to do with First Nations, who just like the rest of us want jobs for their communities and a better future for their kids,” she said.
Finally, Premier Clark confirmed the province’s commitment that every British Columbian will have a family doctor by 2015.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge for us to get to, but we are going to continue to try to get there through incentives for rural doctors, (and) training for rural doctors in rural communities.”