N.S. government to return to talks with Crowns, as controversial law paused

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s Liberal government held off Friday on enacting legislation that would have put striking Crowns back to work, promising to return to talks in a dispute that’s disrupted the province’s justice system.

Bill 203 passed into law late in the day, but Justice Minister Mark Furey says it isn’t being proclaimed and the province will resume negotiations with the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys’ Association.

“We will not proclaim the bill. We will immediately go back to the negotiating table and work towards a solution,” the minister said.

Furey added he believes the parties can “work towards a negotiated settlement,” though a day earlier he’d accused prosecutors of putting their personal financial interests ahead of the needs of crime victims.

A series of impaired driving, domestic assault and fraud cases have been dropped as prosecutors were unavailable due to the three-day walkout.

About 15 of the 101 prosecutors remained on the job to handle more serious cases such as murders and sexual assaults, but there were predictions that a mounting number of adjournments would create backlogs in the system in the weeks to come.

Furey acknowledged Friday his comments about the Crowns had been “inappropriate,” while opposition parties claimed it created a public relations disaster that forced the Liberals into political retreat.

Perry Borden, the president of the union, says the words had created fury among his membership and prompted him to call the provincial attorney general on Thursday evening to seek an apology.

That in turn led to a face-to-face meeting, which then resulted in Friday’s sudden pause of the law, said the minister.

As it’s currently written, the legislation removes a negotiated right to binding arbitration the province had agreed to in 2016. In its place, it allows Crowns the right to strike so long as essential services are provided.

The union says the law is unconstitutional because it strips them of any meaningful negotiating rights, as all prosecutors are likely to be considered essential workers.

Earlier in the day, Gail Gatchalian, a Halifax labour lawyer representing the union, said she was confident that if the matter went to the courts she could rely on other superior court decisions to have the law declared in violation of the Charter provisions guaranteeing freedom of association.

“We’re very confident courts would have it found to be unconstitutional,” she said.

She cited the landmark 2015 case in favour of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, when the Supreme Court of Canada determined that workers needed a credible threat to withdraw their labour in order to meaningfully exercise their right to collectively bargain.

Borden said in light of the constitutional law, he’s expecting negotiations will be serious.

“We’re not afraid of Bill 203. We believe it’s unconstitutional, and we’re not going to go into negotiations with this held as a gloom and doom scenario,” he said.

“Either we negotiate in a good faith manner, or we’ll be back to how this process has started.”

The Crown attorneys had been seeking a 17-per-cent salary increase over four years, which is higher than an established wage pattern set for the public sector, and above the seven per cent over four years offered by the government during negotiations.

Nova Scotia prosecutors are currently the highest paid in Atlantic Canada but the increase would only rank them in the middle nationally. According to figures released by the province, they currently earn up to $149,000 annually, a figure that would increase to about $160,000 under the government’s offer.

The Liberal government has a record of pressing public sector workers for wage restraint, and Premier Stephen McNeil has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe arbitrators go far enough in protecting the public’s ability to pay.

Four years ago his government passed but didn’t proclaim Bill 148, but its negotiators held firm on its wage demands — and the matter is now winding its way through the courts, as is another bill that sets out the terms of a deal with the teachers’ union.

Tim Houston, the leader of the Progressive Conservatives, said he’s dubious over how sincere the McNeil government is about reaching a negotiated settlement with the Crown attorneys, given Bill 203 hasn’t been formally withdrawn.

However, he said he felt that the provincial government was running into a public relations nightmare over a perception that a 2016 deal with the Crowns allowing arbitration was being erased unfairly.

“The government broke its contract. The government broke its word. That caused some problems for the premier so he’s trying to find his way out of that,” he said.

Claudia Chender, house leader of the NDP, said the government “felt the pressure of trying to pass unconstitutional legislation over a group of lawyers.”

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