“In an ideal situation, we would not have to close or merge any English schools,” said Marlene Jennings at a meeting of the English Montreal School Board earlier this year. She is the Trustee appointed by Quebec to oversee the Board.
“In an ideal Montreal in 2020, there would be as many English families and students living on the English Montreal School Board territory as there were two generations ago, Jennings said. “But that is not our current reality.”
During the meeting, it was announced that two English high schools and one elementary school in Montreal’s East End would close. The buildings will be given to the French school board system instead.
“Over the last two generations, we have seen an exodus of English families from the Montreal area,” Jennings says. “Over the last two generations, access to English schools has been limited, very limited, by various laws, and this in large part explains the reduction of the EMSB’s student population from 2005 to 2015. More recently, the local French school boards need space. Their student population is growing.”
This announcement comes shortly after the Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB) revealed that St. Thomas High School in Pointe Claire will be closing at the end of the next school year. It will be moving into the building currently used by Lindsay Place High School, three kilometres away.
“St. Thomas is a building that is over-occupied and it’s at capacity,” Noel Burke, chair of the LBPSB, which was tasked with deciding which of its schools would remain open or merge, says, “Lindsay Place has fewer than 400 students at the moment in a building that’s designed for 1500.”
Burke says the process of closing and transferring the two schools will be assigned to a transitioning committee, which has 18 months to figure it all out in a timely and respectful way.
“The St. Thomas decision was a very painful one for Lester B. Pearson School Board. But everyone got heard, it was a whole process, it was decided locally.” Geoffery Kelley, chair of The Alliance for the Promotion of Public English-Language Education in Quebec (APPELE-Québec) and former MNA, says.
Things didn’t go as smoothly with the EMSB closings.
“The closing of schools in the east end and the transfer of Riverdale [High School], there was no community input what-so-ever,” says Kelley.
Since 1998, the EMSB has had to close 17 of its schools. It is still experiencing a decline in enrolment in three-quarters of it’s schools. Five English elementary and high schools have closed in Montreal in the last five years.
Part of the decline is due to Bill 101 which limits access to English schools to students whose parents or siblings completed most of their education in English in Canada.
This means that most new immigrants must send their children to the French system, meaning that enrolment in French schools will increase at the cost of the English system, according to LBPSB Chair Burke.
“The big culprit, the elephant in the room is Bill 101,” he says. “Any child that has had or started any portion of their education in English, no matter where they’re from, should be entitled to continue their education in their own language of choice.”
But part of the decline in enrolment could also be due to English families sending their children to French schools. Many English parents want to see their kids become totally bilingual bilingual in order for them to have a future in Quebec.
Jackie Ward, a nurse and mother of two from Pointe Claire, says she sent her kids to French elementary school and English high schools so they could have the best of both worlds.
“I sent my kids to French school because I wanted them to learn the best possible French,” Ward says. “Living in Quebec and knowing the French language is essential. Knowing French so well put them ahead academically.” Both of Ward’s children, now in their 20s, are perfectly bilingual.
Almost 30 per cent of the students at St. Thomas High School are enroled in its French immersion program. Their International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, which 60 per cent of its students enrol in, has a strong emphasis on mastering the French language.
St. Thomas is one of the few LBPSB schools that does not suffer from small enrolment numbers, which led many of the staff and students to believe that the school wouldn’t be affected by any move.
“Its gut wrenching,” Darlene McRae, a science teacher at St.Thomas High School says about the move.
“I don’t feel that the Broadview location is a better building, it does have an extra gym and a better auditorium, but apart from that, everything is smaller, and we’re not crazy about the layout. As a science teacher, there are fewer labs. It’s not a better building for me as a science teacher.”