Advocates for and officials at Quebec’s English-language school boards are sounding the alarm over the fast-approaching election date to fill any seats that weren’t filled by acclamation this fall.
The province quietly announced late Friday that those elections would be held on Dec. 19 and 20. They were originally scheduled for Nov. 1, but were rescheduled due to the onset of the province’s second wave of COVID-19.
Critics argue that for one thing, the second wave hasn’t actually ended yet: Quebec reported 1,218 new cases of the novel coronavirus just since Sunday. For another, the logistical challenges of organizing a school board election are significant.
Boards have to organize such elections by themselves, and Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) President Dan Lamoureux, who is also chair of the south shore’s Riverside School Board, explained to Global News that the process can be especially challenging for boards with vast territories, serving communities outside Montreal with fewer English people.
While Lamoureux’s board does not need to hold any elections next month, he cited the nearby Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, which covers Laval and all of the Laurentians and Lanaudière.
“So they have a huge, huge territory to set up elections … as well, we’ve estimated they’ll need 200 people to work at the polls,” he said.
“And in the five days before Christmas, they’re going to have a rough time even getting people to work the polls.”
The Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board did not return Global News’s request for an interview.
Six of Quebec’s English school boards have at least one race where multiple candidates were nominated, necessitating an election. Three of those boards — Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Lester B. Pearson and Central Quebec — will be holding a board-wide election for chair.
No matter which board you’re voting in, voting in-person will be required for all but a few. The education ministry will only allow mail-in ballots for those living in a CHSLD or private long-term care homes, as well as those who are self-isolating or displaying symptoms of COVID-19.
That frustrates Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) President Marlene Jennings.
She said everyone voting in school board elections should be allowed to vote by mail, “period,” and predicted that if every resident eligible to vote in a school board race were mailed a ballot, “you would see turnout jump to 40, 50, 60 per cent.”
That, she told Global News, is probably not something the government wants in advance of the ongoing court battle over Bill 40, which would abolish English school boards entirely.
“I think they want to ensure that voter participation in the English school boards goes down, so they have ammunition when Bill 40 is heard on the merits,” she said.
When asked by Global News why school board elections couldn’t be delayed until June, which was proposed by QESBA last week, Premier François Legault said the current plan has been green-lit by public health authorities.
“I think it will be done correctly respecting the measures that are to be respected because of the Covid-19,” he said. “And I think it’s about time that we had some people that are really confirmed as responsible of those school boards, we didn’t have elections since a long time (ago).”
That explanation isn’t good enough for many in the community, however.
“My own personal belief is that they’re not very well organized,” Lamoureux said of dealing with the Premier, as well as Education Minister Jean-François Roberge. “They’re changing their tune at every last minute.”