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Elected school boards guarantee anglo rights in Quebec, panel suggests

The Quebec government’s rejection of a report urging it to continue English school board elections, in spite of low voter participation, has upset the sponsoring groups.

A panel representing four of Quebec’s most important associations involved in English public education and community development has come out strongly for maintaining the current system of electing English school board members and their chairpersons through universal suffrage.

The English Systems Study Panel concluded that elections represent “the best and perhaps only way to fulfill the government’s obligation to protect the minority language community’s constitutional rights.”

The report stated that voter turnout would probably increase if online, telephone and mail-in voting were allowed, and that anomalies should be removed to ensure that English speakers are included in the electoral voting lists of English rather than French language boards, as many are now.

The panel was chaired by former federal Liberal MP Marlene Jennings and sponsored by the Quebec English School Boards Association, English Parents’ Committee Association, Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), and Quebec Federation of Home and School Associations.

The report represents ideas stated in 36 written reports and 29 interviews with English language community organizations, stakeholders and constitutional experts.

Those cited contended that constitutional guarantees for minority language education in Quebec should mean that Quebec’s English speaking community has maximum rights to control and manage its educational facilities, and this would best be assured through elections.

QCGN director-general Sylvia Martin-Laforge termed the rejection “unfortunate,” adding she hoped education minister François Blais was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the Liberal caucus or government. She plans to “continue to network and make our views known to every MNA in the government and certainly every MNA that has large constituencies among the English- speaking community.” She suggested an asymmetrical approach as a possible solution– elections for English boards, but not for French boards, which have a much lower voter turnout.

Jennings warned that if the Quebec government scraps school boards, or imposes further budgetary cuts, it would be like “cutting food to an anorexic.

“We have no other institutions that we control, where we can be our Anglophone selves, without being made to feel guilty, without being ostracized or criticized,” she said in an interview.

The vitality of French language majority communities in Quebec has never depended on their school boards, and their elimination “will make absolutely no difference to their survival and their culture.”

English school boards, on the other hand, “play a much larger role in keeping our communities alive – not the case with the French boards, which are focused on the success of students,” Jennings said.

“The actual lifeblood in our community in many cases across Quebec depends on the existence of the school boards and elected commissioners.”

The report noted that if school board members are appointed rather than elected, it raises the issue of accountability – do they answer to the needs of the community or the minister?

According to the Quebec Federation of Home and School Association, voter participation in English language board elections increased to 19.9 per cent in 2014 from 14.6 in 2003. Among French boards, it dropped to 5.5 per cent from 8.4 per cent during the same period.

Other recommendations made by the panel:

  • Voter registration be changed so English minority tax payers who pay into English boards, English public high school graduates, English minority youth who turn 18, and parents whose children have graduated from an English public high school be automatically registered to vote on the English board list;
  • School board commissioners and governing board members should receive mandatory training and professional development to better understand their roles;
  • The Education Act should stipulate ethical and conflict of interest guidelines for board members.

The report said Quebec should recognize English boards as a “success story”, given the graduation and qualification rate (the percentage of students under 20 that obtained a diploma after seven years) for English boards was 84.5 per cent in 2013, compared to 75 per cent for French boards.

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