The premier fielded questions Thursday on the uneasy relationship between the CAQ government and Quebec’s English-speaking community.
QUEBEC — The Legault government conceded Thursday that it could have handled the controversial closing of Riverdale High School better.
“I must admit, and the minister of education admits, that communications on the Riverdale file could have been better, could have been better managed,” Premier François Legault said.
“Some elements were revealed by the media when they should have been divulged to the school board first. We will better communicate in the future.”
In his defence, Legault said, relations between school boards in such situations are not always simple and time was pressing. Boards instinctively want to defend their turf and hang on to their buildings, and the negotiations between the two school boards in question were not moving fast enough, he said.
“This was an exceptional situation where there was an urgent need for space and there was a school with the capacity of 1,000 spaces and only 441 students in place,” Legault said.
The premier was responding to questions from the Liberal opposition critic for relations with the English-speaking community, Jacques-Cartier MNA Gregory Kelley.
Kelley raised the issue at a committee that was reviewing annual spending plans for the government’s secretariat for relations with English-speaking Quebecers, which was set up by the previous Liberal administration and is being maintained by the new regime.
The secretariat’s budget is going from $2 million a year to $4.4 million.
In January, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced plans to step in and ease overcrowding at the Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys by permanently transferring Riverdale High School, which was operated by the Lester B. Pearson board.
The decision, which many students and parents found out about via an article in the Montreal Gazette, sparked dismay and anger.
On Thursday, Kelley said he didn’t want to revisit the logic of the decision but added he was very concerned about how it was handled.
“There was a lot of sadness, incomprehension and unhappiness about the cavalier way the announcement was made,” Kelley told Legault.
It was the first time Legault — who retains responsibility for the English-speaking community despite his main job as premier — found himself in the hot seat over the decision.
“I feel somewhat vindicated,” Kelley told reporters after. “It’s not right when a minister or a government makes an arbitrary decision without consulting people.”
Legault found himself justifying another potential irritant to the community: the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s plan to abolish school boards — including nine anglophone boards — and replace them with service centres.
The community has vowed to fight the plan in court, on the grounds that the constitution guarantees the rights of English-speaking Quebecers to administer and manage their own schools.
Under questioning from Kelley, Legault revealed the government has a legal opinion on a possible way around the constitutional requirements in the event a bill proposing such a change is challenged.
By effectively transforming each school into a distinct board, the government would be respecting the anglophone representation requirements at the same time as abolishing the larger, more expensive board system.
“It would meet the requirements of the law,” he said. “Do we have to go this route? I think what’s important is that we agree the English-speaking community has to have just as much power.”
Legault added the government would save $20 million on elections and the move would put more power in the hands of parents.
But the old problem of the under-representation of minorities in the civil service (about one per cent) came up, as did the higher unemployment levels for English-speakers — particularly those living outside Montreal in the regions.
Kelley asked Legault if he had any updated job numbers as a result of a hiring blitz launched by the old Liberal regime in its dying days in office. Legault said he did not and reminded Kelley that, with almost 15 years in office, the Liberals failed to make a dent themselves.
“I think we have to make more efforts,” Legault said, noting the government is pouring more money into community organizations to stimulate interest among minorities to apply for Quebec government jobs.
The debate had lighter moments, with Legault reminding the committee he is no stranger to the English-speaking community because he grew up on the West Island, in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, and his mother still lives there.
“I know many anglophones who are in love with Montreal and Quebec and wouldn’t move to Toronto for anything in the world,” Legault said in an opening statement.
He noted some anglophones have moved here from Ontario and stayed. He mentioned author Louise Penny, who recently appeared on the popular Radio-Canada talk show Tout le monde en parle.
“Her books are set in Quebec,” Legault said. “I was happy to hear her say now her home is Quebec.”
Legault recognized previous government decisions such as the adoption of the Charter of the French Language were not easy for the community to accept.
“But today the great majority of anglophones accept Bill 101,” he said. “We will protect the historical rights of our fellow anglophone Quebecers and we will define our common future together.”