Montreal, September 16 2015 – Following three months of intense study, the Election Systems Study Panel (the Panel) released its final report today urging the Quebec government to maintain the current practice of electing English school boards by universal suffrage as the best, and perhaps only, way to fulfill the government’s obligation to protect the minority language community’s constitutional rights. The report, which was submitted to the Panel’s four sponsoring organizations - Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA), the English Parents’ Committee Association (EPCA), the Québec Community Groups Network (QCGN) and the Québec Federation of Home and School Associations (QFHSA) as well as to Minister of Education François Blais – also suggests a range of measures including online voting in order to increase voter participation.
“Over the summer,” explained the Honourable Marlene Jennings, Chair of the Panel, “we met with constitutional and elections experts, retired school board Chairs, 2014 school board election Returning Officers as well as representatives of community groups, parents, individuals, and other interested parties. In spite of the study being conducted in the middle of Québec’s traditional holiday period, we received nearly 40 written briefs, emails, and phone calls. The clear consensus is that English-speaking Quebecers are interested in and value their school boards, viewing them as crucial to student success and to our community’s overall vitality.”
“At the same time,” continued Ms. Jennings, “we recognize that parents have a vested interest in our school system and we are urging that steps be taken to ensure that their voices are strengthened.”
The Panel is recommending that Parent Commissioners continue to be elected through the current Parent Committee Electoral College system with all of the rights, responsibilities and duties of Commissioners elected through universal suffrage but with the addition of the right to vote. The Panel is also proposing that the number of Parent Commissioners be increased from 4 to 6 on each School Board.
“The constitutional experts – and we met with four of them – along with our review of the relevant Supreme Court judgments are clear that the English-speaking minority has the right to manage and control its education system,” noted Ms. Jennings.
Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a non-exception clause, establishes the Constitutional provisions for minority language education rights in Canada. The Supreme Court has noted that the broad scope of Section 23 facilitates the creation of disparities between Canada’s linguistic minority groups and as a result recommended in 2003 that Section 23 cases could generally be settled by referring to the jurisprudence of three leading cases: Mahe v Alberta, Reference Re Public Schools Act, and Arsenault-Cameron v Prince Edward Island (Bergman, Daniels 2014).
While not specifically designated under Section 23, protection for the right of minority language Community members to elect School Board Commissioners and Chairs from within their communities through universal suffrage as the natural means by which to exercise their right to management and control identified by Mahe appears logical and is common across Canada (Bergman, Daniels 2014). It can be argued that, because the Council of Commissioners is the decision-making arm of the School Board and Section 23 grants management and control rights to minority language community members so they can make important decisions impacting their language and culture, minority language community members also have the right to choose those Directors from among their numbers (Bergman, Daniels 2014).
“We also acknowledge that steps need to be taken to increase voter turnout,” added Ms. Jennings. “We need to make it easier to vote. We heard horror stories about inaccurate voting lists, long line-ups at the polls and the need to travel long distances each way to exercise one’s right to vote. This is unacceptable in the twenty-first century.”
Specific recommendations of the Panel designed to increase voter participation include:
- Conducting English School Board elections through online, telephone and mail-in ballots only;
- Granting English School Boards the legal authority to collaborate with their French School Board counterparts to revise voter lists for School Boards on their territories;
- Modifying the voter registration process so that:
- English Minority tax payers who pay into the English School Board system are automatically registered to the English School Board voting list;
- Graduates of English public high schools are automatically registered to the English School Board voting list;
- English Minority youth who turn 18 are automatically registered to the English School Board voting list;
- Parents of children who have graduated from an English public High School are automatically registered to the English School Board voting list;
- In the event that the Québec government does not implement ESSP recommendations 6 and 7, that voters in English School Board elections have the ability to identify their respective School Boards and be registered to vote for the appropriate candidates by showing proper identification on the day of the elections at their polling station.
“The strength of elected school boards is that commissioners have a special link to the community they serve,” concluded Ms. Jennings. “They are grass-roots representatives with their ears to the ground. Parents know them and appreciate that they are there to help ensure the education system adapts to students’ changing needs while preparing them to succeed within Quebec and the wider society. It is not surprising that despite significant hurdles including limited financial resources students in the English system enjoy an above-average performance in regards to graduation and success rates of students.”
About the Panel
The Election Systems Study Panel (ESSP), launched in June of 2015 and sponsored by the Québec English School Boards Association (QESBA), the English Parents’ Committee Association (EPCA), the Québec Community Groups Network (QCGN) and the Québec Federation of Home and School Associations (QFHSA), is an independent volunteer Panel consisting of five members of the English Minority Community (EMC). Chaired by the Honourable Marlene Jennings, former Member of Parliament, other Panel members include former Assistant Deputy Minister from the Ministry of Education Leo La France, Executive Director of Townshippers’ Association Rachel Hunting, President of QFHSA Brian Rock, and Vice-President of EPCA Rhonda Boucher.
The Panel’s mandate included the review of numerous election systems as well as the current system of universal suffrage for the selection of Commissioner and Chairs; consultations with English Minority organizations and individuals with expertise on the various options; a review of past elections; and making recommendations for the four sponsor organizations to present to the Québec government. The Panel investigated all system options through the prism of Official Language Minority Community (OLMC) Constitutional Rights.
The Panel received nearly 40 written briefs, emails, and phone calls, conducted 29 interviews involving nearly 50 individuals, and conducted a literature review using the secondary analysis of primary Sociological, Anthropological, and Sociolinguistic research as it pertains to the English Minority Communities in Québec (ESCQ). Academic research on School Board governance was used to provide background information on Québec’s current election system for English Minority School Board Commissioners and Chairs as well as to situate, for the Ministère de l’Éducation, the role of English public School Boards in the maintenance and proliferation of ESCQ vitality in Québec. Panel members also included an analysis of Supreme Court of Canada judgments and jurisprudence within the context of Official Language Minority Communities (OLMC) rights under Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and an analysis of research documenting OLMC School Board models in other provinces.