Montreal's anglophone community was hit hard by demographic reality Tuesday as the province announced it would take away three English-language schools and transfer them to the French system.
Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge said the change will come in September to correct a situation in east-end Montreal where the French school board is short 3,000 spaces while some English schools operate at roughly half capacity.
"An empty class isn't useful to anyone," Roberge told reporters Tuesday. "We need to raise ourselves above a partisan debate or a debate of anglophones versus francophones."
But a French-versus-English debate is what he got after he announced his decision on a French-language radio station — without first telling anyone at the English Montreal School Board.
"We feel the minister has really betrayed our community," Andrew Ross, an English Montreal School Board commissioner representing parents, told a news conference. He said it would have been better to convert the schools into shared English-French spaces rather than forcing out the anglophones. "The situation has been soured, extremely," he said.
Angela Mancini, chair of the English board, called it "irresponsible" of Roberge to have announced his decision on the radio. "I'm hoping he will make an announcement that is official and have the respect necessary of the English community to inform us officially of his decisions," she said.
English-language communities across Quebec have declined in recent decades, but Montreal has maintained a critical mass numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The east-end of the city, however, has a growing population of immigrants whose children are barred by law from entering the English school system.
Last Month, Quebec's education minister gave the English- and French-language schools boards operating in the area until June 10 to negotiate a deal to ease overcrowding in the French system.
"A deal didn't happen," Roberge said. "It's sad, but we have to trigger today the process for a decree to be declared at the next cabinet meeting in 10 or 12 days."
Roberge's decision marks the second time in six months the government has used a provision in the Education Act that allows forced transfers, having earlier moved an English high school on Montreal's West Island to a French board.
The minister said he was still willing to listen to any last-minute proposals to avoid the forced transfer.
Last month, a letter from the minister to the English school board was leaked to the media. In it, he told the board he intended to transfer the three Montreal schools — General Vanier and Gerald McShane elementary schools as well as John Paul I, a high school — to the French system for September.
Roberge told reporters a day after the letter was leaked that he was disappointed it was released to reporters. He said at the time that negotiations about easing overcrowding have gone on for years without any solutions.
Mancini, however, said that letter signalled to the French school board it had little reason to negotiate because the government was planning on taking the schools anyway.
"That is the predicament this particular minister has put us in from the beginning," Mancini told reporters. She said her organization proposed a number of alternatives, including sharing some schools with the French board, but it was unable to reach a deal.
Roberge said he would have agreed to the two boards sharing some schools, but only for the "short-term." He said it would be difficult to integrate newcomers to Quebec if they went to school alongside English speakers.
"It's not ideal conditions if you want new arrivals to learn French, if there is a school with a lot of anglophones in it at the same time," he said.
The Quebec English School Boards Association said the government's move penalizes the minority anglophone community.
Russell Copeman, the executive director, said the association and the school board are examining their options, which could include a legal challenge. He said the English-speaking community has a constitutional right to control and manage its school system.
"We would far prefer a negotiated settlement," Copeman said. "This government doesn't seem to want to let the system do what it needs to do to in a timely fashion to resolve these issues."