• Stephanie O’Hanley

Bill 62, free education, school fees among topics discussed at respectful LBPSB meeting


PHOTO BY ANDREW BELDING

Chris Eustace, a retired teacher and regular at LBPSB meetings, addresses new board Chair Noel Burke during the November 27 Council of Commissioners meeting.

Quebec government’s recent passage of Bill 62 – a law that forbids people from providing or receiving public services with their faces covered – drew a mix of reactions from the Lester B. Pearson School Board’s Council of Commissioners meeting held Monday, November 27.

Reading the board’s official statement, new Chair Noel Burke stressed the board’s commitment to promoting a “climate of inclusiveness and open-mindedness.

“As a public institution in Quebec, Lester B. Pearson supports the highest level of access to public education and employment at our schools, centres and head office as inclusion is a critical value to this board,” Burke read. “Lester B. Pearson School Board respects the principles of religious neutrality and accommodation for religious differences. At this time, based on the information we have been provided, Bill 62 will not affect our existing policies and day-to-day life.”

Later in the meeting Burke said the board was waiting for more details “before taking a specific stance on that issue.” As well, Ward 3 Commissioner Joshua Arless asked the board to set a January deadline for its Intercultural Advisory Committee, which at a previous meeting was mandated to report on Bill 62.

However, student representatives from the board’s Central Students’ Committee took a stronger stance on Bill 62, reporting their committee is adamantly against it.

“We agreed that only in situations of safety and security should people have to reveal their face,” explained Student Commissioner Miranda Bohns. “We had one person bring up that when we purchase items online we don’t see the faces of people that we purchase from, so why would this be any different for anyone wearing the niqab or the burqa? ...When asked about a teacher wearing a burqa or a niqab all of us felt that it would not have impacted our learning so we didn’t think it should be an issue.”

The students’ position drew praise from the commissioners and a suggestion from Burke.

“On Bill 62, I can’t tell you what to do but I think it would not go unnoticed if you felt strongly about Bill 62 if you communicate with your MNAs, to the Premier about that because they often don’t hear from the students themselves about these issues.”

Respectful Question Periods

Judging from an email exchange before Monday’s meeting between longtime board meeting attendee and critic Chris Eustace and Burke, a tense meeting would not be unexpected. But while exchanges between the two were heated, the tone was respectful.

In an email, Eustace asked that the board pass a resolution to instruct its lead lawyer, Jacques Provencher, “to withdraw any objections to members of the public and media being present at the hearings of the Quebec Labour Relations Board.”

Eustace held up a sign that read ‘Freedom of Press’ as he addressed Burke during the first question period. “I attended a hearing two weeks ago of the person that is central to the whole scandal at the school board (over) the past year and the lawyers on the school board’s side said they didn’t want us there, there were also journalists there.”

In his email reply to Eustace, Burke wrote that the board is “perfectly willing to respond to any questions from the public regarding the affairs of the school board but our scope of responsibility does not extend to the courts or external legal proceedings.”

In the email, Burke warned Eustace, “...if your behaviour or language escalates at this evening’s or any further meeting – I will immediately suspend the meeting until you have exited the room and will set into motion an official banning of your presence from Council meetings of the Lester B. Pearson School Board.”

As he requested the board pass his resolution, Eustace pointed out Burke has promised “good, open, honest, transparent governance.” Burke replied, “I need to correct the record. ...the lawyers on our behalf did not ask for the media and the public not to be present in the courtroom. The request that was made was referred to legally as a non-disclosure order,” meaning neither the media nor the public could report on or share information.

Burke told Eustace that the board has no jurisdiction over the courts. “We cannot tell the courts what to do.”

Free education debate resolution and class action on school fees

A resolution requesting Quebec’s Minister of Education, Recreation and Sports hold a public debate with school boards on free education led several of the board’s parent commissioners to either recuse themselves or abstain from voting. The resolution mentioned a class action lawsuit against 60 school boards across the province for fees paid by parents.

Board lawyer François Hamel said while there was no conflict of interest legally since no ruling exists on the class action, commissioners were free to abstain from the vote if they so wished.

Earlier in the meeting, Parent Commissioner Angela Berryman urged parents to participate in the English Parents’ Committee Association survey on school fees, noting a link to the survey on the LBPSB Parents’ Committee Facebook page.

Dogs for student stress?

During the Central Students’ Committee report, Student Commissioners Melina Siles and Miranda Bohns said while discussing ways to reduce student stress, therapy dogs came up as a solution. “What about kittens?” said Burke, a request echoed by Ward 1 Commissioner Mary Ann Davis. “We talked with the teachers at St. Thomas who do have a therapy dog,” Bohns said. “If that would be possible, I think that would be very beneficial.”

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