Decision to axe N.S. school boards, a reminder of power of cabinet: Charter expert

Click to play video: 'Minority voices concerned about move to unified school boards in N.S.' Minority voices concerned about move to unified school boards in N.S.
WATCH: Questions persist about whether the move to axe all English school boards in Nova Scotia was democratic and how local voices will be represented in the education system. As Marieke Walsh reports, it's also showing gaps in how minority voices are protected – Feb 5, 2018

The decision to axe most of Nova Scotia’s elected school boards is a reminder of the power of a majority government, says professor emeritus Wayne MacKay.

MacKay is a prominent voice on constitutional law in Nova Scotia and has written several books on the laws that govern education in Canada.

“[It’s a] lesson in how important and powerful the provincial government is in relation to education,” MacKay said. “School boards are simply a delegate of the province and they can create them, they can take them away.”
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“That power really hasn’t got much of a check on it from a constitutional view,” he said.

READ MORE: Report recommends scrapping most N.S. school boards, says system isn’t working

Almost two weeks ago, the province announced it would go ahead with the recommendation by Avis Glaze — the Ontario-based expert brought in to carry out an education system administrative review — to close all English school boards, among more than 20 others.

On Monday, MacKay told Global News the swift decision to end the election of school board representatives is “problematic.”

He said the speed with which it was done should give Nova Scotians pause — Education Minister Zach Churchill announced the province would accept the recommendations, a day after it was released to the public.

MacKay said the decision to centralize power could have been made in a “more democratic way,” but added that it was fully within the government’s “right” to do.

He suggested a referendum or public consultations would have ensured a more democratic process was used to decide to remove a democratic process. In response, Churchill told Global News that more delays weren’t an option.

“The call to action is urgent that Dr. Glaze has given us — we’ve been sitting on the same education system for a long time,” Churchill said.

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He also said he views the Liberal’s campaign promise to review the school board administration as a mandate from Nova Scotians to act. The document did not say what options were being considered.

“We have to make decisions as government — that’s what we’re elected to do,” he said.

The question, according to MacKay, is whether the process used by the government would be acceptable if applied to another area.

“Maybe you don’t care about school boards,” MacKay said. “But what would you think if the same thing was to happen to council or to municipal government?”

MacKay said many people think that wouldn’t be possible but says, “they could, the exact same legal principles apply.”

Asked about this analogy, Churchill said he didn’t know how the “link” was made.

While French school boards are protected through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there is no such explicit protection for English school boards. MacKay said that might be seen as unequal but its an “inequality that is stated in the Constitution.”

Churchill couldn’t say whether the charter protection was the government’s only reason for keeping the French school board. He said with seven English boards, the system had become too unwieldy and that it was “almost impossible” for the system to “respond and adapt” to changing needs.

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WATCH: N.S. government restricts school board decision-making ahead of dissolution

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N.S. government restricts school board decision-making ahead of dissolution – Jan 29, 2018

Minority representation at risk: School board member

HRSB District 5 Representative Suzy Hansen said her main concern with the government’s plan is that it will mean minority voices and marginalized voices will get less of a platform.

The government says it will have minority voices on the provincial advisory committee and in new jobs within the department. Those positions would be responsible to the minister.

Churchill said the “enhanced” school advisory councils will allow for local representation and will include traditionally marginalized groups. “We will need to have all of those community voices at the table participating and so that is our goal,” he said.

Hansen said she’s unsure how that will work in practice because people with irregular work hours or shift work, single parents, and parents with language barriers will struggle to participate on the school councils.

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“My worry is that their voices are not going to be heard and that they are not going to have a strong voice behind the [school advisory councils] in some areas,” Hansen said.

She said the Halifax board which includes two seats for elected African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq representatives is in part there to “assist” the schools that don’t have “strong” councils.

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