The Nova Scotia government has called for an inquiry into the 18-month-old labour dispute between the Chronicle Herald, Canada's largest independently owned daily newspaper, and the union that represents the paper's editorial staff.
Premier Stephen McNeil said he hopes the industrial inquiry commission will bridge the chasm between the company and the union.
"We just felt that somebody outside with a fresh set of eyes and an ability to bring both sides together hopefully will be able to find a resolution to this," he said Thursday. "This has been a long time for families to be out, and an employer to be still working and trying to provide the product that they do."
McNeil said the inquiry will help ensure both parties are bargaining in good faith.
The two sides are expected to meet in early August for a mediated discussion with commissioner William Kaplan, a labour lawyer who was most recently appointed by the federal government to mediate the Canada Post dispute.
If a voluntary agreement can't be reached, however, Kaplan will investigate the causes of the dispute and report his findings and potential recommendations to the minister. The process is non-binding and does not guarantee a deal will be reached.
The newspaper's chief operating officer, Ian Scott, issued a statement late Thursday, saying the company was "puzzled" by the government's move.
"An Industrial Inquiry Commission is considered a 'final option' available to the minister, yet the union has not moved a single complaint forward through the Labour Relations Board," the statement said.
"We have offered Herald journalists the best newsroom salary and benefits in Atlantic Canada's newspaper industry, and our offer is still on the table today. We have also made it clear we are willing to resume talks at any time."
About 60 reporters, photographers, editors and support staff walked off the job on Jan. 23, 2016, over a list of contract concessions that management said were needed to cope with economic challenges affecting the North American newspaper industry.
The company has said it offered wages and benefits well above industry standards and that the union has not been prepared to agree to concessions that reflect the current climate.
However, the union has countered that it has agreed to wage cuts, caps on severance pay, reduced mileage rates, fewer vacation days and drastic pension changes.
Derek Mombourquette, the province's acting labour minister, said the two sides are at an impasse.
"There seems to be no end in sight to this dispute," he said after a provincial cabinet meeting. "We wanted both parties to come to the table and figure out a solution to the dispute, but now that it has gone on this long we felt like it was time to take action."
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie criticized the timing of the inquiry.
"This should have happened a long time ago," he said, noting that the province's Liberal party won a second consecutive majority government less than two months ago. "The election is over, that's what's changed. Clearly Stephen McNeil did not want the Herald to be at full strength during the election."
Ingrid Bulmer, president of the Halifax Typographical Union, said the government's move was in response to the union's fourth application for an inquiry.
"I guess the fourth time is the charm," she said. "We're pretty relieved. This is a bit of a bright light in this long dispute."
Bulmer said the union had 61 members when the strike began. It now has 53 members, including reporters, editors, photographers, editorial writers, columnists, page technicians and support staff.
Striking newspaper workers entered into a revenue-sharing partnership last year with digital news company Village Media to launch an expanded version of LocalXpress.ca. The award-winning online publication includes news, sports, a business section, weather and entertainment stories.
Mombourquette said Nova Scotia Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis recused himself from the file due to a perceived conflict of interest. He said Kousoulis has a "personal connection" to the family of Sarah Dennis, publisher of the Chronicle Herald.