Montreal

Future of English language school boards debated before Quebec's highest court

A coalition of community groups and school boards is challenging the constitutionality of the law, arguing it violates minority language educational rights.

Law is suspended until court hears debate on its merits, but government wants go-ahead to implement

Quebec's Court of Appeal is hearing arguments over whether the government's plan to overhaul school boards should continue to be on hold while its constitutionality is debated. (CBC)

The future of Quebec's English language school boards was before the province's highest court Monday, with the province trying to overturn a stay of its controversial education reform, Bill 40.

A panel of judges said it will have a decision Thursday.

The law, passed in February, changed most school boards into service centres and did away with elections for French-language boards, in an effort to decentralize power.

It requires English boards to begin the transition to service centres after board elections in November, but English service centres will continue to have elected positions.

A coalition of community groups and school boards is challenging the constitutionality of the law before the Quebec Court of Appeal, arguing it violates minority language educational rights.

In August, the group obtained an injunction suspending application of Bill 40 for English boards until the merits of the case could be argued in court.

Province argues bill 40 is 'minor' change

Samuel Chayer, a lawyer for the province, argued Monday that suspension should be overturned.

Chayer contended Bill 40 doesn't threaten minority education rights, saying it does not abolish school boards, but merely changes their name and modifies their structure.

He told the court the new service centres have the same responsibilities as school boards, and they serve the same territory and same schools.

Chayer said the main change the law brings is to give parents more power on boards by designating a certain number of positions for them.

He called the rest of the changes brought in by the law "minor modifications".

Chayer noted the law was passed by a democratically elected government, and that it is urgent it be implemented with board elections set for November.

Boards: law would cause irreparable harm

Perri Ravon, lawyer for the school boards, said it was ridiculous for the government to argue Bill 40 is a minor change.

Ravon called it the biggest transformation of the educational system in Quebec in a generation.

She noted that the new law sets aside certain spots on service centre boards for parents, but that parents who wish to run for those spots must already be members of an individual school's governing board.

Currently the law prohibits parents on school governing boards from holding positions on school boards.

She said the stay of Bill 40 is necessary in order to avoid "administrative disruption" that would result in changing the criteria for who can hold a position on a board while still waiting for the case to be argued on its merits.

She said administrative disruption has been recognized in previous constitutional cases as causing "irreparable harm".

She said if the structure of the boards is changed in November, but then school boards eventually win on the merits of the case, the structure would have to be changed yet again.

Ravon argued the least disruptive path would be to maintain the status quo at English language boards until the case is argued on its merits.

Neither side commented after the hearing, although the Quebec English School Boards Association has repeatedly asked the government to delay this fall's school board elections.

The government so far has said the elections will proceed.

The deadline for boards to post official notice of school board elections is Friday.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said the new law sets aside four spots on service centre boards for parents. In fact, there could be as many as 17 spots available depending on the board.
    Sep 15, 2020 6:33 PM ET

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