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Journalist Anne Lagacé Dowson turns activist to save public schools

Anne Lagacé Dowson arrived in Montreal with an M.A. in hand, some experience at CBC radio in Ottawa, and a bicultural background, and settled in a modest apartment, corner Napoleon and St. Laurent.

It is a noisy and busy part of town, but so Montreal – the heart of the old immigrant district, the mythical Anglo/Franco border, and in 1987, a very hip part of town.

Working as a general reporter for CBC radio, Dowson was “the cool dude,” soaking up the excitement as an energetic young reporter in a zippered leather jacket, scurrying around town in a “third-hand” Honda Civic.

She lived modestly, paying off her student loans, and went on to be a current affairs host for several CBC radio shows, carving out a strong reputation as a credible, caring, and perceptive journalist with a deep understanding of Canadian history and a human touch.

Lagacé Dowson today lives a few blocks away from her original flat, with two young daughters and filmmaker husband Brian McKenna. She has a busy career as a freelance commentator and talk-show host on CJAD, host for literary events, and a recent stint as head of an anti-bullying foundation.

After a vigorous campaign, Lagacé Dowson failed to defeat incumbent chairperson Angela Mancini.

She ran as a reform candidate, committed to a moratorium on school closures, more effort to pare down administrative expenses, transparency, and intensification of French-language instruction.

A big shift in her career came some 20 years after the Toronto native had settled in Montreal, when Lagacé Dowson — she added her mother Claire Lagace’s maiden name to underscore her bicultural heritage —ran in Westmount-Ville Marie in 2008 as a “star candidate” for the New Democratic Party, and came second to Marc Garneau.

It was quite a leap for a CBC journalist moving ahead on a strong career path to set aside the comfort of observer status and take a partisan stand. But being involved was close to home, since Lagacé Dowson followed in the footsteps of her parents – union activist father Hugh Dowson and civic activist mother, her leftist uncle Ross Dowson, and several ancestors.

“I’m a journalist and a host but also a citizen and I did not agree with the direction Stephen Harper was taking this country,” she remarked about her decision to enter politics.

“I decided to do something about it.”

She took a leave without pay, and ended up in a more lengthy battle since what was to be a by-election turned into a more protracted general election.

“Marc Garneau had said that if I had run in 2011, I would be the MP. But I didn’t because I had things to catch up with regard to the kids. It’s very hard on families when you run.”

“People need, at a certain point, to decide what they stand for and what they want to do with their lives.”

The same principles applied this fall when she decided to challenge Mancini, who had been chairing Quebec’s largest English board for seven years, in the first direct election for that position.

When her eldest daughter, Emma, went to the neighbourhood Bancroft School, Lagacé Dowson began asking herself what she could do to improve public education.

“At Bancroft there was a terrible fight over whether the school should be made bilingual. Enrollment was declining, and that’s when I started to clue into the politics of how decisions are made, and what role parents have, or don’t have, in the school boards.

“Ultimately, we got the bilingual program and enrollment has gone up by almost 100 kids. It was a lesson of what can and should be done, certainly downtown and in the centre-west, to revive and save the schools.”

She was upset that the board spent “over half a million dollars to shut down St. Patrick’s (in Pointe St. Charles). Instead of working with the parents, they fought them.”

“There is no school there and ultimately when you do that you are damaging the community, causing huge displacement, putting kids on buses – some families actually move.”

“Since 1998, they’ve shut 18 schools, and since Mancini’s been chair, they’ve closed six schools and outreach facilities.”

The end result is that people leave the public English school, and either end up in French schools in the neighbourhood, which have a larger board and more resources, or in private schools.

This is a huge and dramatic challenge, since public education is at the bedrock of liberal democracy and a pillar of the Quiet Revolution.

The irony, Lagacé Dowson notes, is that, “Some of the EMSB schools are as good as, possibly better than some of the private schools.”

“People don’t know enough about the services that are available to them.”

FACE, the acronym for Fine Arts Core Education, where her daughters study, is “an example of two school boards co-habiting in the same building. French and English kids all sing the same material, perform in the same concerts, and have the same music teachers.

“It’s an example of a really creative approach to a specialty program. There needs to be more of these kind of specialty programs to draw parents back.”

There are also ways of generating revenue by opening up the schools for use after regular hours, she suggests.

Asked about her plans, having lost the election, Lagacé Dowson says: “I live a full, rich life, and I’m sure I’ll find something to do.”

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