Quebec education minister defends decision to begin transfer of EMSB schools to French board

"It's a tough decision I have to make," said Jean-François Roberge about starting the process to transfer three English schools to the overcrowded Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l'Île — skirting the question of what impact that will have on his relationship with anglophone Quebecers.

Most parents 'understanding,' says Jean-François Roberge, skirting question about relationship with Anglos

'It's a tough decision I have to make,' Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said of starting the process to transfer three English-language schools to the Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l'Île in Montreal's east end. (Steve Rukavina/CBC)

Anglophone parents living in Montreal's east end had to tune into a French-language radio station Tuesday to learn that Education Minister Jean-François Roberge was beginning the process of transferring their children's schools to the Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l'Île (CSPI).

"It's very disappointing, first of all, to hear that he was addressing the francophones," said Laura Zuanigh, who has a daughter in Grade 5 at General Vanier Elementary School — one of three schools slated to be taken away from the English Montreal School Board.

Roberge defended that decision — and the way it was announced — in an interview on CBC Montreal's Daybreak Wednesday.

He told host Ainslie MacLellan he didn't plan to break the news the way he did.

"The interviewer asked me about the transfer of schools, and I answered the question," Roberge said.

Roberge said he believes parents on both sides of the language divide "are understanding of the situation" facing CSPI, which needs to find space for 3,000 more students by the start of the next school year.

Roberge had given the two school boards until June 10 to come up with their own solutions to accommodate those students, however, discussions based on the EMSB's proposals that the two student populations cohabit some schools broke down before that deadline.

"Everybody knew that this will come," he said about his decision to move forward with the transfer of General Vanier Gerald McShane elementary schools and John Paul Junior High School to the CSPI.

"It's not a surprise."

Here's more from Wednesday's interview. To hear the full exchange go here.

You confirmed you were starting the transfer process on a French radio station. Didn't you owe it to the parents to tell them the news directly?

It's a tough decision. It's a sad decision, and I understand that it's [disappointing] for some parents and teachers and school staff. I can understand that. 

But, in fact, more than 30 days ago, on May 10, I sent a letter to EMSB and told them I would prefer the EMSB to go and to inform the parents and the school staff and teachers, face to face.... Everybody knew that this will come, and it's not a surprise. 

Yesterday, I accepted an interview in the francophone media, it's true.... The interviewer asked me about the transfer of schools, and I answered the question.

Why isn't co-habitation a long-term solution?

Cohabitation is a short-time solution, but it is a solution.

To see this as a solution, there are some conditions. They must have a lot of classes in the same school.

You know, it's not possible to [administer] and to govern with four classes here, six classes here, eight classes there.

So as a minister I can't impose accommodation, but I can help the two school boards to find some solutions, and maybe that they will come to agreement with some cohabitation. 

I still hope [it can happen]. My team is talking to both school boards each day, and we are open-minded. That's all I can say for now.


How hard did you push the CSPI to accept cohabitation?

They understand that the government doesn't want a fight; the government wants an agreement. We have a lot of discussions with the CSPI for other projects. It's always a good idea to show good faith and to take responsibility and to respect everybody, and I think they can understand that.


What do you say to parents who don't know what will happen next year?

As a father — I have two daughters — I understand that it's not an easy decision. It's not an easy situation. I really understand what they are going through, and they will have the final decision within two weeks. After that … I know that their children will be taken good care [of].


Have you considered funding, upgrades to the English schools that will need to accommodate more students?

Of course, yes. Of course, yes. 

Millions [of dollars] will come, because when we transfer a school from a school board to another, there is a huge compensation. For Riverdale, I think it was like $10 million. [Editor's note: In January, Quebec's Education Ministry forced the closure of Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds. The school building will be turned over to the French-language Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys next month.]

In fact, the EMSB will have some money to renovate and to give better spaces in all their schools and to hire more professionals and to give better service to the community. And it's important to say so.


Do you think you still have a good relationship with the English community?

Yes. I understand that it's a tough moment. It's a tough decision I have to make. When it's your kid, you know, you're emotional, and it's normal. As a father I can understand that. 

But I think most of the parents and most of the community, anglophone and francophone, are understanding of the situation and understanding of what we are doing right now.

Maybe they don't like it, but they can understand it.


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