By Julien Feldman
EMSB Commissioner, Ward 3
(St-Henry/Pointe St. Charles/Westmount/Downtown/Griffintown/Southwest)
The group of activist parents behind the English school board’s “Team Joe Ortona” took control of its elected council of commissioners in the wake of their defeat of the Quebec government’s much-maligned Bill 21in Superior Court, a discriminatory law which takes direct aim against women of colour.
Although Quebec’s discriminatory Bill 96 is a now a major concern as well, Bill 21 remains a key issue – just as it was when school elections were called last fall. The vote in Ward 3 was suspended last fall by government decree because it was located in a COVID Red Zone just as last fall’s surge fell upon us.
The Ward 3 election is now back on for Sept. 26 and I am running for re-election as a member of Team Joe Ortona. I’m asking you to support me by voting in the school board election.
Bill 21 purports to lawfully ban women from the teaching profession if they happen to wear a hijab, a deeply disturbing and divisive development in Quebec society that harkens back to the1950s. As commissioners, we are alarmed that race and religion once again a factor in Quebec politics.
In his landmark ruling striking down key elements of Bill 21, Judge Marc-Andre Blanchard observed that harmony and diversity remain the fundamental values underpinning Quebec’s English community – values that are egregiously violated by Bill 21, in fact and in sprit.
The ruling concluded that the government violated the English school board’s legal right in the Canadian Charter of Rights to decide who to hire, based on merit alone – not the illegal criteria based of language, race or creed.
A group of elected commissioners with roots in the Caribbean established a caucus of colour, determined to ensure the court ruling is respected not only by the government, but within the English school board itself, directly addressing inequities and instances of systemic racism – wherever they are found and whether they affect teachers, staff or students, whether in hiring, teaching, student admissions or discipline.
The English school board’s new Equity Committee – back by Team Joe Ortona’s council majority, is determined to ensure that community values are reflected within an institution that counts 40,000 students and thousands of employees
The government has appealed the Bill 21 judgment, but elected commissioners – led by new Board chairman Joe Ortona — quickly got to work, determined to implement the judicial decision within the school board’s administration and in every school.
An Equity Committee has been established with Daniel Tatone as chairman, and myself as vice-chairman. Joe Ortona and Mubeenah Mughal (who was a lead plaintive in the Bill 21 lawsuit) are key members of the Board’s new Committee
I’m a long-time parent activist, allied with a team of seasoned parents at the core of Team Joe Ortona. We’re leading the Anglo community, winning historic constitutional challenges, stopping Quebec in its tracks on unconstitutional provincial laws like Bill 21, Bill 40 and, soon, Bill 96. I’m inspired by mother, a proud Jamaican – and her grandfather – a classroom legend known as Teacher Johnny of Clarendon.
Friends, here’s what hangs in the balance: Montreal’s English school board is well known as Quebec’s most successful public school system, but even as petty, hostile Quebec politicians seek to exploit the global pandemic to damage our institutions — putting their own questionable political interests ahead of thousands of children — it’s not the only challenge we face.
Still, we can’t afford to lose sight of our primary mission: the role of the English school board is fundamental to the basic education and to the career future of tens of thousands of students who will bring our diverse community into the future of Montreal and the future of Quebec as fully bilingual citizens, valued in a bilingual workforce that functions in a globalized world.
The global pandemic itself has not only altered our lives in critical ways, but the day-to-day life of public schools as well. Not only are these changes here to stay, change itself is now a permanent feature of public schools navigating between COVID lockdowns, forced online learning, mask mandates, class bubbles and vaccine passports.