The debate about English school access has generated considerable interest these last weeks, ever since the Quebec Court of Appeal threw out a Parti-Québécois-era law that tightened access beyond the strictures of Bill 101.
The issue, and the excitement over it, demonstrate just how central schooling is to the life of the community. And yet when school board elections come around Nov. 4, how many of Quebec's agitated anglophones will actually vote? Not many, we fear. In the 2003 school board elections, the Lester B. Pearson turnout was seven per cent. The English Montreal rate was 16 per cent. So was the South Shore's Riverside board rate. At the Sir Wilfrid Laurier board, covering Laval and beyond, 19 per cent of those eligible voted.
Those sad numbers are the result of many factors, which we'll address in this space soon. But today we want to point out that in fact those numbers are worse than they seem, because most anglophones are not even on the voters' list for anglophone school elections. This is the result of convoluted and unfair Quebec law on the subject, one that the Liberal government should change.
Everywhere in the Western world, it is normal to make voting as easy as possible for those who have the right. Extended voting hours, advance polls, wide dissemination of election information, convenient polling places, extra help for the disabled - all of these are the norm, because a high turnout is a good thing.
But if you're a Quebec anglophone, the government seems to have little interest in making sure you vote for a local English school board official. The way it works is that anglo parents who do not currently have a student in English school are probably on the voters' list for their local French board. Even students who graduate after 11 years in English school will find, when they turn 18, that they're eligible to vote for French school board commissioners only.
There's a way around this, but it requires a bit of effort: You have to get in touch with your local English school board, or the director general of elections, and fill out a form. It takes a little time, and it intimidates some people. It's petty. It should come to an end.
The Liberal government did make a modest change two years ago: Now, when your last child leaves the English system, you remain on the English voters' list. Previously you somehow became a French school board voter.
The result of this mean-spirited constriction of the English community is that while the nine English-language school boards have roughly 110,000 students, they have only 146,000 eligible voters, just over half of them on Montreal Island. In other words, about three-quarters of Quebec's 586,000 or so anglophones are not even eligible to elect people to run their school boards.
This unfortunate situation has many consequences, all of them bad and some of them extending beyond education. A small voters' list naturally reduces interest in the election races. This is turn facilitates acclamations, and could make it possible for a well-organized candidate to win no matter how unsuitable. More generally, a turnout of only seven or 16 or even 19 per cent naturally reduces the moral authority of school commissioners.
More broadly, and more seriously, an anemic school board political scene stunts the growth of anglophone consciousness, community and co-operation. At every other level of government, from the borough or ward up to the federal electoral riding, we see fewer and fewer anglophone elected officials in modern Quebec. Only at the school board level can anglophones express themselves as anglophones in a meaningful way about at least one important issue. School boards should be a competitive incubator for anglo community leaders.
Only once in recent decades did anglophone school elections draw a big voter turnout. In June of 1998, in the first elections for newly introduced linguistic school boards, anglo turnouts surpassed 40 per cent province-wide and exceeded 50 per cent in one or two boards - despite delays, confusion, and frustration at polling places.
The anglophone community could use that kind of turnout this November. What a constructive outlet that would be for the community's frustration and anxiety over Bill 104 and over all of Quebec's continuing identity crisis.
The Gazette urges everyone eligible for the English voters' list to get registered, and to spread the word. The electoral-list revision period is scheduled for October but it's easier to get yourself onto the English voter's list now than it will be if you wait.
The English school board where you live is waiting to help you. Here's where to look:
English Montreal: www.emsb.qc.ca
Lester B. Pearson: www2.lbpsb.qc.ca
(information coming soon)
Laurier: www.swlauriersb.qc.ca ("Notice of registration" at the bottom of the main page.)