Manitoba may pull out red pen, make changes to controversial school reform legislation
Education minister offers a timeline for potential Bill 64 changes as he unveils new student advisory council
The controversial, and in some circles unpopular, plan to overhaul Manitoba's public school system may be getting a partial rewrite.
Education Minister Cliff Cullen has never closed the door to making changes to Bill 64, and on Wednesday he offered a rough timeline for potential amendments.
"We will certainly maybe" be "putting some ideas out there in advance of the House coming back," Cullen said, suggesting changes may be on the way before question period resumes at the legislature in October.
The minister added he is also waiting on a report in the coming weeks from the province's parent engagement task force, which has been holding regional meetings with parents, before putting forward any amendments.
Cullen made the comments Wednesday at a news conference where he unveiled the list of nearly 30 students who will serve on a new student advisory council to help guide government on issues important to students.
The establishment of the advisory council is one of the recommendations of Better Education Starts Today, the province's multi-year strategy to improve the education system.
Province feeling heat: critics
Bill 64, which will put some of those reforms into law, has dominated the focus on the province's education plans, with political opponents suggesting Cullen's remarks about amendments imply the Progressive Conservative government is backpedalling.
The legislation has faced widespread opposition, evidenced through town halls, social media and thousands of lawn signs decrying it.
"It does sound to us that the PCs have realized they made some mistakes with Bill 64," Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said.
"Nobody wants this bill, and I think they're starting to feel the heat," NDP education critic Nello Altomare said.
"Anyone that wants to talk about Bill 64, they want to know how to stop it. We're certainly hearing that message and we're hoping that this government hears that message as well."
The critics, however, said any amendments would fall short and the government should scrap the legislation entirely.
As of last week, 474 people had registered to speak at committee hearings this fall on Bill 64 — the largest number of registrations for committee hearings on record, according to Legislative Assembly of Manitoba staff.
In the meantime, the province is giving students a say in improving the public school system.
The government selected 29 high school students out of nearly 200 applications for the advisory council.
Diverse group on student council
Cullen touted the group as reflective of the province's diversity, with urban and rural representation, as well as 11 visible minorities, six students with disabilities, four Indigenous students and two students who identify as members of the LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirit) community.
In their applications, they called for improvements to mental health, regional equities, as well as diversity, inclusion and foster reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
One member of the council, Grade 10 student Namirembe Afatsawo, who is from The Pas, said she is eager to bend the ear of government.
"I'm really excited to bring perspective as a student living in northern Manitoba," she said in an interview. "I'm also a visible minority and a woman so bringing in my perspective to the table feels very inclusive."
In particular, she wants to see an increase in the number of French immersion teachers in rural Manitoba. Some of her teachers work out of town, so she must resort to virtual learning at her school, Margaret Barbour Collegiate Institute in The Pas.
The lack of a teacher in the room makes asking questions challenging, Afatsawo said.
"If it's outside of class hours and have to ask over email, sometimes you don't explain the question properly and then you don't exactly get the response you would like," she said.
During the students' 12-month term on the council, they will meet with the education minister, government staff and other education stakeholders.