Court of Appeal backs English boards; call for election delay

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Photo: QCGN

Quebec Community Groups Network president Geoffrey Chambers is pleased with the unanimous decision of the three Court of Appeal judges.

English groups in Quebec are applauding a court decision in support of the English-language school boards, but there is confusion about what will happen with elections scheduled for November.

A unanimous decision by the three Court of Appeal judges upheld the temporary suspension of the application of Bill 40, the plan put forward by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) to change governance of public schools by abolishing school boards and elections and replacing them with “service centres.” Bill 40 is already in effect for francophone school boards.

The Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) challenged Bill 40 on constitutional grounds, in particular the application of Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees minority rights to education in English and French.

Quebec Community Groups Network president Geoffrey Chambers celebrated the “robust” court decision and called on the CAQ government to “save time, money and grief” by not appealing the ruling of Quebec’s highest court.

The judges ruled as follows: “Given that the changes in school governance resulting from Bill 40 appear, at first glance at least, to withdraw powers of management and control from the English school boards and limit the eligibility of the members of the official language minority of Quebec for elected positions in the new school service centres, in this case the public interest leans in favour of protecting the rights of the official linguistic minority rather than implementing Bill 40 in the English educational sector, at least until there is a judgment on the merits.”

In light of the decision, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, English school advocates are seeking that the CAQ government suspend English school board elections for a year.

Chambers said, “Over and above the serious public health risks posed by COVID-19, it would be unreasonable to hold an election in November. The multiple challenges include outdated electoral lists, arrangements for voting locations and recruiting election staff.”

Central Québec School Board chair Stephen Burke said, “We’re hoping the government will have the decency to grant us a one-year reprieve, and allow those who are presently elected to continue for a year. That will give us time to prepare for an election that won’t be a fiasco.”

Burke reiterated he does not plan to stand for re-election if elections do proceed. “Thirty-three years is enough for me.” In the event that elections do proceed, Burke said he had been looking for a replacement as board chair.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge reacted through a series of Twitter comments: “We reiterate that Bill 40 fully respects the constitutional rights of the English-speaking community. It should be remembered that this decision does not settle the debate on the substance of the law, [but] concerns [only] the suspension of its application for the English-speaking school system.

“We will take the time to analyze the full judgment before providing further comments.”