Ignoring outcry, CAQ government to force through school board reforms today

A controversial and wide-ranging set of reforms of Quebec's education system is expected to be rammed through the National Assembly later today.

Premier François Legault plans to use closure to get Bill 40 passed in time for next school year

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge accused the opposition of trying to delay the bill's passage. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

A controversial and wide-ranging set of reforms of Quebec's education system is expected to be rammed through the National Assembly later today.

The Coalition Avenir Québec government called for the unusual Friday sitting of the legislature in order to invoke closure on Bill 40, legislation that will, among other things, abolish school boards and do away with elections in French-language districts.

Closure is a tool that allows a government to short-circuit the usual legislative process and force a vote on a bill. This will be the fourth time the CAQ government has used the measure since it came to power in 2018.

Tabled last fall, Bill 40 contains more than 300 sections and would modify around 80 existing laws. Along with the changes to school boards, the legislation will change how students are graded, how teachers are trained and how schools are run.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge tabled 167 pages of amendments this week, which opposition parties said they needed time to study.

But Roberge and Premier François Legault accused the opposition of simply wanting to delay the bill's passage.

"I haven't heard any new arguments from the opposition," Legault said Thursday.

The government wants the bill passed as soon as possible, so the changes are in place by the start of the next school year. 

Avoiding one legal fight may spark another

The bill will be passed over opposition from school boards, teachers' unions and English-language lobby groups. They all say the government is rushing ahead with a complicated reform without having consulted widely enough.

In an effort to avoid a constitutional challenge from anglophone rights groups, the government will give English Quebecers the right to vote for some directors of the new "service centres" which are to replace school boards. 

But that has done little to ease the concerns of the Anglo community. APPELE-Québec, an alliance of English-language public school teachers and parents, worry the elections won't be fair, and the new service centres won't have any real power.

"In order to meet an ill-considered timetable, Minister Roberge is showing a total disrespect for the democratic process," the group said in a news release.   

And if the government was hoping to avoid a court fight by appeasing Anglophone concerns, it might have created another legal tussle.

A federation representing all Quebec school boards, the FCSQ, said Thursday it intends to ask the courts to block the bill's implementation.

Allowing English service centres to continue having elections while stripping French service centres of their right to do so is "discriminatory," the federation said.

'Tin-pot dictator' 

'This government seems to consider the power of the legislature to be a nuisance,' said Véronique Hivon, the Parti Québécois' education critic.  (Sylvain Roussel/CBC)

The CAQ government's repeated use of closure to pass controversial legislation has alarmed and angered opposition critics.

In the spring, the ban on religious symbols, Bill 21, and Bill 9, a set of immigration reforms, were passed during a marathon weekend session at the National Assembly. 

In December, the government used closure to pass a law that removed oversight of Hydro-Québec's energy rates, Bill 34.

"This government seems to consider the power of the legislature to be a nuisance," said Véronique Hivon, the Parti Québécois's education critic. 

"If the minister's time was so precious, why did he bother tabling a bill with more than 300 sections?"

Speaking on the floor of the National Assembly, Québec Solidaire's parliamentary leader, Manon Massé, compared Legault's leadership style to that of a "tin-pot dictator."

The French term Massé used, boss des bécosses, translates literally to "boss of the backhouse" or "boss of the privy." Massé withdrew her comment after the speaker objected.

With files from Radio-Canada and La Presse Canadienne