Montreal

Quebec schools to be spared cuts during all 4 years of CAQ government, premier promises

In a speech Wednesday outlining his legislative goals, Premier François Legault said the Coalition Avenir Québec won't make cuts to educations at any point during its four-year term.

Legault says he won't make cuts that affect students, even in an economic downturn

Quebec Premier François Legault outlined his government's priorities in a speech Wednesday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Premier François Legault is promising the Coalition Avenir Québec government won't make cuts to education at any point during its four-year term.  

In a speech Wednesday outlining his legislative goals, Legault said improving the province's education system will be a priority during his time in office.

"Even if Quebec were to face an economic slowdown, education funding will be protected," Legault said at the National Assembly.

"The future of our children, the future of Quebec will be protected."

The previous Liberal government cut education funding in the first years of its mandate in order to balance the budget. It struggled to shed its belt-tightening image afterward.

Legault inherits a better fiscal situation, with budget surpluses forecast this year and next.

On Wednesday, he reaffirmed his commitment to introduce pre-kindergarten classrooms across Quebec and provide more services for students with learning disabilities.

But he stressed, as well, that pre-K won't be compulsory and that the public daycare system will continue to play an important, "complementary" role.

The speech didn't include specifics about the pre-K plan. During the election campaign, he pegged its annual price tag at $311 million and said it would free up 50,000 public daycare spots.

Critics have questioned the projected cost and whether it is even feasible, given the shortage of teachers and classrooms in some parts of Quebec.

Quebec Premier François Legault, left, during his speech Wednesday at the National Assembly in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Legault responded to the criticism by saying it demonstrates a lack of ambition, "audacity and pride."

The word "audace," or audacity in English, appeared 12 times in his 27-page speech, which attempts to portray the CAQ as leading Quebec down a brave new path.

While short on details, Legault's speech also mentioned, in broad strokes, how health care and economic growth will be the two other pillars of the CAQ government. 

He promised to follow through on a pledge to cut school taxes and turn the St. Lawrence Valley into a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship.

CAQ to move quickly on immigration, religious symbols

Immigration and banning civil servants from wearing religious symbols weren't highlighted as top priorities in Wednesday's address.

Yet Legault said he would move quickly on both issues, which figured prominently in the election campaign and in the month following the CAQ's majority victory.

"We will be very firm on this, and we intend to move quickly," he said of the ban on religious symbols.

The CAQ has already moved ahead with its plan to reduce immigration levels by 20 per cent.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has already taken steps to cut immigration levels. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette opened negotiations recently with the federal government that could see the province accept roughly 12,000 fewer immigrants as early as next year.

Mixed message on environment

While acknowledging the threat of climate change, Legault said he couldn't commit to meeting the 2020 greenhouse gas reduction targets outlined in the Paris agreement.

The premier said he would make efforts to cut emissions by putting money into public transit — including the previously announced extension of the Montreal Metro's Blue line — and by encouraging the use of electric vehicles.

He made no mention of Montreal's proposed Pink line, a more ambitious Metro extension being pushed by Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.

Legault did, however, commit his government to building a so-called third link (a bridge or tunnel) between Quebec City and Lévis, despite calls to focus instead on public transit.

The premier also said Quebec has an opportunity to become the "battery" of North America by selling hydroelectricity to the United States and the rest of Canada. He called it a "win-win for Quebec and its neighbours."

François Legault wants to sell electricity produced by Quebec's hydro dams to Canada and the rest of the United States. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Legault's spoke briefly in English, telling anglophones their "historical community is an enrichment for Quebec in many regions."

He added: "We are proud to protect your historical rights and we will keep on doing just that."

Opposition parties want to hear the specifics

Interim Quebec Liberal Party Leader Pierre Arcand said it's hard to believe there will not be cuts to education with school taxes going down, and given the CAQ campaigned on a promise to abolish school boards.

"While the government talks about stability in education, I think there will be a lot of worry there," he said.

Interim Parti Québécois Leader Pascal Bérubé called Legault's pledge not to cut education vague.

"He's on the defensive," Bérubé said in his reaction to the speech, noting that Legault did not talk about the specifics of his pre-K promise. 

In her reaction to the speech, Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Massé criticized the premier's failure to talk about fighting poverty.

"Not once did we hear the word poverty," she said. 

The legislature is only scheduled to sit for two weeks before breaking for the holiday season.

During that time, the government is expected to table an economic update and make amendments to Quebec's cannabis law, including raising the minimum age of consumption from 18 to 21.

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

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