By Yvonne Sam
Pride Contributing Columnist
On October 1, 2018, a general election was held in Quebec, to elect members to the National Assembly of Quebec. It was the first election in 40 years, wherein the issue of sovereignty was not a campaign issue.
With the absence of such a sensitive issue that had long since divided Quebecers, traditional voting blocs were freed up, allowing federalist and separatists, alike, to change their allegiances. Such a move brought, in its wake, a landslide victory for the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ).
The victory began as the continuation of a succinct ailing process — one that would not end until it had metastasized to places of learning, consequently affecting those responsible for the dispensation of learning.
In the early hours of Saturday, February 8, 2020, a demise of sorts took place: the passing of Bill 40, Quebec’s law reforming the public school system. Already it is the subject of widespread criticism, being panned by everyone, from teachers to school boards, from municipalities to all three opposition parties.
Even Montreal Mayor, Valérie Plante, claimed to be caught by surprise, and would need more time to study the legislation.
Bill 40, in addition to abolishing school boards, as we know them, and replacing them with, what the bill calls “Service Centres”, also abolishes school board-level elections for the administration of francophone schools, as early as March 1, 2020 (but not English ones); changes the working conditions of teachers; forces cities and towns to accommodate, the real-estate needs of schools; and changes where parents can send their children to school.
The passage of Bill 40 is not without its accompanying hazards on all sides. Teachers’ unions, parents, school boards, even newly-formed coalitions etc., have vowed to take legal action, aimed at sending the Bill straight back to Parliament Hill.
Lawyers and scholars in the English-speaking community are busy analyzing how the Bill does, or does not, respect Section 23 of the Constitution of Canada.
Calling the move “autocratic and anti-democratic”, the Federation des commissions scolaires du Québec, which represents most of the French school boards in Quebec, said it will challenge Bill 40, before the courts, once it is passed.
The election of the CAQ sounded the death knell for education in the province of Quebec. If Quebecers care to recall, during the 2014 provincial election, Francois Legault, now Québec’s Premier, pledged to abolish school Boards. According to him, they suffered from a governance problem, and additionally noted the low participation rates in their elections. Come 2018, he reiterated this stance during the electoral campaign.
If both, Anglophones and Francophones, were laboring under the misapprehension that the words were just “vote talk”, or idle banter, they have now discovered differently, as they are forced to confront reality. Was there, in their eye a mote, as they each did cast their vote? Or did they believe that his campaign talk, would, at his victory, be given the “walk”?
Premier, François Legault, insisted that Quebecers gave him a clear mandate to adopt the bill in the 2018 election. According to the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, “words are seldom spent in vain, when they are short”.
What is strange about the change?
On the French side, service centres will be composed of five parents and five staff members.
In the English network, which would not be modified, until this November, universal suffrage (the right of adult citizens to vote in an election), would be maintained, but in a manner, so limited and complex, that the composition of the Service Centres would bear no resemblance, whatsoever, to that of present school boards.
The Bill allows English centres to elect, all but four, of their 16 board members. The difference lies in the fact that, presently, parents can be elected by their peers to sit on Council as parent representatives, alternatively, they may, like any other citizen, become an elected commissioner by running in a ward election.
The Bill now limits, to four, the number of community members, who would sit on a Service Centre Board. These four members (with potentially no children in the school system) would be voted in, individually, through an election that would encompass the entire school board.
The majority of seats would be held by parents, with teachers and staff representatives completing the number. The Chairperson would be a parent, but the official spokesperson of the Service Centre would be its Director General. Members would work as volunteers, but would receive a statutory amount of $100 per meeting, with the Chairperson being given an additional $50. Before becoming members of a Service Centre Board., parents would need to attend a mandatory training session.
While it may all appear interesting to the reader or first glancer, the question that immediately comes to mind is: whether or not parents really have the time to assume all these responsibilities? Already school governing boards face great difficulty in their search to find people willing to serve on them. Will Service Centres be any different? Amendment to Bill 40 means service centres can ask municipalities to cede property, for free, for the “purposes of construction or expansion of a school or education centre”.
Quebec is returning to a previous time — the 1960’ — when the Department of Public Instruction was overseeing more than 1, 500 school boards. The educational system in Quebec was a complete hodgepodge, with each school board taking care of its own programs, textbooks and the recognition of diplomas according to its own criteria.
Under the new plan, parents are at liberty to enroll their children in the school of their choice, which could lead to competition between schools. The Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) — a union representing 125,000 members working in education, fears that the new system would breed inequality of services between schools and, as such, will destabilize the public education system in Quebec.
The equity of the proposal, made by Bill 40, becomes somewhat questionable. Some schools in affluent communities may perform as well as they did before the Bill, but what consideration, if any, is being given to schools in areas, where the socio-economic fabric is not conducive to self-governance, and where opportunities for fundraising are virtually non-existent.
Who would ensure proper pedagogical governance? Regarding schools in less-favoured environments, would they be left to fend for themselves? Would the Director General be empowered with the freedom of speech to question the authority of a Minister, who, in his infinite wisdom, decides to close a school or build a new one?
According to the Coalition Avenir Québec, the local school community has all the necessary abilities to do much better than the present school boards.
Bill 40 is viewed as a hurried bill, with accompanying negative consequences for Québec’s public schools. However, an educational miasma and loss of governance is nothing new to Quebec.
The province is returning to a previous time — the 1960’ — when the Department of Public Instruction was overseeing more than 1, 500 school boards. The educational system in Quebec was a complete hodgepodge, with each school board taking care of its own programs, textbooks and the recognition of diplomas according to its own criteria. Many rural areas had only one-room schoolhouses that had to cater to children of all ages, and the conditions for teachers or pupils were not always ideal.
When the Liberal Party came into power, under Jean Lesage, it made education its top priority, and it was to play a central role in the modernization of Quebec. With this end in mind, the provincial government placed greater emphasis on free education and the building of new schools. In order to achieve these objectives, it took control of the educational system and began secularizing it.
A Ministry of Education was established in 1964, under the responsibility of Paul Gérin-Lajoie, with school boards being reorganized, in what became known as Operation 55: from 1,500, the number of Catholic boards was reduced to 55, and the number of Protestant boards set at 9.
Quebecers find themselves in the same place 56 years later, playing out Operation 55 — having similar factors, but with different actors, all regarding education and possible litigation, and, above all, denial of the English-speaking community’s right to control and manage its institutions.
It is left for all to see, to what extent the CAQ makes education a priority.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.