Let’s Focus on Strengthening our School Boards
Justice Sylvain Lussier of the Quebec Superior Court’s recent 129-page ruling that a number of Bill 40 provisions are in violation of constitutional protections for minority language communities as described in Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is welcome news for Quebec’s English-speaking community. We are re-assured that the courts are supporting our right to “manage and control” our education system. This is a positive sign as we move forward with our court challenges to Bills 21 and 96.
The other good news was that leaders of both the Quebec Liberal and Conservative parties joined us in calling for the Legault government not to appeal the decision. As Eric Duhaime has said, an appeal “is a waste of time, it’s a waste of money and it’s a breach of confidence with the Anglo-Quebec community.” Regrettably, the CAQ government did not heed this call and will now have to proceed to the Quebec Court of Appeal to defend ourselves once again.
The leaders of Quebec’s English school system have consistently been calling on the Quebec government to work with us to strengthen our school boards by initiating measures designed to increase voter turnout. Now is the time for the government to “turn the page” and work with us to improve governance while we continue to focus on student success.
Almost a decade ago the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA), the English Parents’ Committee Association (EPCA), the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) and the Quebec Federation of Home and School Associations (QFHSA) came together and set up a committee headed by Marlene Jennings to look at our electoral process. We were reacting to the lamentable turn-out in the previous school board election: only 16.9 per cent of eligible voters turned up at the polls. (It was only 5.5 per cent in the francophone system.)
The Jennings Committee pointed out that the electoral process made it difficult to vote. It was hard to get on the voters list. The limited number of polling locations forced English-speaking Quebecers to travel greater distances to exercise their democratic right. And then they faced long line-ups at the voting booth.
The panel correctly maintained that voter participation would be increased if voting were to take place through online, telephone and mail-in ballots. Another option is to twin school board elections with municipal elections and have them organized by Quebec’s Chief Electoral Officer. This approach has been successfully implemented elsewhere in Canada and should be considered.
The panel’s recommendation to modify the rules about who can vote in English school board elections are also worth pursuing. The names of graduates of English public high schools should be automatically registered on the English school board voting list, rather than reverting to the voting list for francophone boards, as they now do. The report recommended that the English school boards be given the legal authority to collaborate with their French school board counterparts to revise the voter lists. Presently, an individual who is not on the list must obtain and then complete a form from the English public school board in their jurisdiction.
The other key to a healthy democracy is to have competitive races. In the 2020 school board elections few seats were contested as the electoral process was rushed, and many potential candidates simply did not have enough time to organize. We as commissioners have a responsibility to encourage community members to step up and help us ensure our schools are effectively addressing the needs of English-speaking Quebecers.
We are proud that the success rate in graduation and qualification among public school boards in Quebec exceeded the provincial average by five percentage points as well as the French-language capabilities of our graduates. But we are also aware that we must continue to adjust our programming and services to meet the changing needs of our students. Let’s focus on what matters- the strengthening of our school boards - rather than costly and unnecessary legal battles.