New Brunswick Education Minister Bill Hogan says he is not looking to combine the province’s two school bus systems into a single, private, bilingual system.
“I’ve been involved in no discussions, nor do I plan on being involved in any discussions about having bilingual school buses,” Hogan told reporters on Friday.
Hogan’s promise comes after a report from Radio-Canada that revealed the province had requested two legal opinions on the institution of a privately run bilingual school bus system. The legal opinions were from the summer, before Hogan took over as education minister upon Dominic Cardy’s explosive exit from cabinet.
One legal opinion said school buses, while not a place of instruction, are considered an extension of the school system and are therefore likely covered by Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees that anglophones and francophones can receive instruction in their language.
Liberal official languages critic Isabelle Theriault said those protections exist for good reason.
“When you put in the same group a few anglophone students and a few francophone students, well, almost automatically it will switch to English and we need to preserve those spaces for our children to develop themselves in French,” she said.
“Also for safety reasons, if a francophone student feels sick and can’t communicate with the school bus driver that could be catastrophic.”
While speaking during question period Friday, Higgs deflected concerns raised in the Radio-Canada report, saying the province was only looking to use city buses in Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton to help get on top of ongoing school bus driver shortages.
“Yes, we have been looking at can we work with municipalities as other people do in other provinces, could we have a bilingual bus service in the cities of our provinces, could we help the cities fund their bus service in a more economical way,” he said.
The legal opinion obtained by Radio-Canada doesn’t mention using public city buses, rather using a single private operator.
Higgs went on to say that the public system may become increasingly unaffordable for the province, claiming that school bus drivers were asking for an average annual increase of 25 per cent in contract negotiations. The Canadian Union of Public Employees questioned what the premier was referring to, pointing out that the two sides haven’t begun bargaining yet.
Green MLA Kevin Arseneau said the premier’s claims about the union show that he’s more worried about union-busting than solving school bus driver shortages.
“It sounds more like union-busting than anything else. If you make the job interesting, if you make the job attractive, you’re not going to run out of bus drivers. Why would the city have bus drivers but the schools can’t?” he said.
“What value do you give these people, their jobs and the services that they are giving the population?”