Quebec court sides with English school boards fighting education reform

A hallway at Lakeside Academy school in the Montreal borough of Lachine is shown on Friday, April 1. 2016. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec English school boards celebrated what they called a “clear victory” on Wednesday, as a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled that parts of a provincial law abolishing school boards violate English-language minority education rights.

In a lengthy decision, Justice Sylvain Lussier ruled that several sections of the law cannot be applied to English school boards, including those that set limits on who can run for election and sit on the boards.

“The sum of the restrictions and requirements set out in the law leads to the conclusion that the English-speaking community will lose control and management of its institutions to the benefit of either the (Education Department) or a small group of people who will have the time, and above all the means, of dealing with school governance, while those who are presently interested in it will be discouraged or prevented from continuing to serve,” he wrote.

Bill 40, which was adopted in February 2020, replaced school boards with service centres. The Quebec English School Boards Association challenged the law in court, arguing it violates minority language education rights guaranteed in Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that it would grant the government too much control over education.

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In 2020, they successfully petitioned for a stay on its application while awaiting the outcome of the challenge. Quebec English School Boards Association spokesman Russell Copeman portrayed the decision as a win for minority rights and urged the province not to appeal. He called the decision a “clear victory for the control and management rights of the English speaking community.”

In particular, Copeman praised the judge for his insistence on applying a “broad and liberal” definition of a rights holder, as well as Lussier’s “eloquent” defence of minority rights.

While the government had argued that only parents with children currently enrolled in the English system should be considered rights holders in the case, the judge opted for a much broader definition of the community, ruling that rights should extend to everyone who is or has been eligible to enrol their children in English school.

“As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,”’ the decision reads.

Lussier struck down sections of the law that tried to set limits on who could run in elections, which he said would eliminate about 90 per cent of those who were previously eligible.

“The minority is having the vision of the majority imposed on it as to who can represent it, whereas for more than 200 years, all members of the community have been eligible to take care of school management,” the judge wrote.

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He also struck down provisions that would have placed unelected staff members on boards, as well as a rule that stipulated that a service centre’s director general — a staff member — be designated as official spokesperson.

He also found that the Quebec government had failed to “meaningfully” consult the English-speaking community about the law.

Lussier declined to strike down some of the articles that had been challenged, including a rule that school service centres must facilitate the sharing of resources with each other and other public bodies, as well as another that allows ministers to determine objectives or targets.

Copeman said that while his group needs time to analyze the decision, he believes those sections are largely limited to “hypothetical” scenarios.

The Quebec government did not immediately respond to the decision or indicate whether it plans to appeal.

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