Liberals stand by school board system, calling it an Anglo rights issue

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, addressing the Fédération québécoise des commissions scolaires, defended the existence of school boards in Quebec and in particular English school boards.

The Coalition Avenir Québec has been suggesting boards be replaced for years

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard has hit the campaign trail, telling members of Quebec's school boards that he will protect their current system. (Jacques Boissinot/CANADIAN PRESS)

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, addressing the Fédération québécoise des commissions scolaires, defended the existence of school boards in Quebec, and in particular English school boards, during a campaign event Saturday.

He said the Coalition Avenir Québec's plan to replace the boards with committees "just won't work."

"Nobody in their right mind believes that school boards can be replaced by, quote, 'committees'," Couillard said, addressing the largely French-speaking audience in English.

"Attacking school boards or proposing their abolition is an attack on those rights and institutions," he said.

"English-speaking Quebecers are part of who we are," he added. "They have built Quebec with us. Their rights and their institutions matter to me."

Couillard then repeated the words of Clifford Lincoln, when he resigned from the Liberal cabinet of Robert Bourassa in 1988.

Clifford Lincoln resigned his cabinet post in 1988, saying famously "Rights are rights are rights." (CBC)

Lincoln opposed Bourassa's use of the notwithstanding clause in a bill to override a Supreme Court ruling, striking down as unconstitutional a Quebec law imposing French-only commercial signs.

"Rights are rights are rights," Couillard said, repeating the exact words of Lincoln, one of three English-speaking ministers who resigned then in protest.

The reference was not lost on Stephen Burke, chairman of the Central Quebec School Board, who was in the audience and recalled Lincoln's defence the rights of Quebec anglophones.

"I am very reassured," Burke said of Couillard's commitment to keeping the boards.

"I'm not open to listening to people who want to get rid of school boards," Burke said.

His school board, covering 30 per cent of Quebec's total territory, has an 84 per cent rate of students completing their primary and secondary education within the normal 11 years, Burke said.

"People ask us, how come in the English system you do so well? ... "It's commitment by the commissioners, on the part of the administrators, on the part of parents."

Replacing the boards with committees, "You would lose so much of the effort," said Burke.

CAQ promises no English mergers

Mario Asselin, the CAQ candidate in the Quebec City riding of Vanier-Les Rivières, speaking for his party, told the school board representatives that the CAQ plan would merge existing French-language school boards, replacing them with committees.

"The English committees will not lose power," Asselin said.

The CAQ said it will replace the 9 English school boards with 9 committees. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

There are now 72 French school boards in Quebec and nine English school boards.

Asselin said there would be no mergers in the English system.

The nine existing English school boards would be replaced by nine non-elected school committees.

As well, Asselin said, the CAQ system would be democratic because the existing school governance boards would still have elected members.

The last school board elections in Quebec were in 2014. Voter turnout has not been higher than 20 per cent in recent years.

The Liberal government has postponed school board elections until 2020, allowing Elections Quebec to establish comprehensive voters' lists, and investigating the possibility of electronic voting.

Couillard said the government must explain, in preparation for the 2020 school board elections, why the boards are important.

"I always vote in school elections," Couillard said. "As a parent, and now as a grandparent."

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