Premier François Legault promised an overhaul of education, including the abolition of local school boards, as he pledged young students will be the top priority for the new Quebec government in the coming four years.
The largest portion of Mr. Legault’s opening address to the Quebec National Assembly on Wednesday was aimed at education, as he promised sustained funding growth, expanded access to four-year-old kindergarten and vast but unspecified sums for capital improvements to schools. Mr. Legault said the government will add an hour to each high-school day to make time for sports, arts and help with homework.
“In recent years, our education system has lacked love,” Mr. Legault said. “The schools have been abandoned; children who need help have been left to their own devices. The alarm has sounded and we heard it.”
While education was clearly Mr. Legault’s top priority, he reinforced that he will not compromise on sensitive issues of Quebec identity that dominated the agenda for his Coalition Avenir Québec this fall and during the recent election campaign.
The government will ban civil servants in positions of authority, including school teachers, from wearing religious symbols, he said. He also intends to cut immigration quotas, chastising critics for refusing to hear Quebeckers’ concerns.
“We must avoid condescension and talking down to Quebeckers who have legitimate worries,” he said.
Mr. Legault, who had hinted at possible compromise in recent weeks, may have had his resolve reinforced this week with a CROP poll conducted for Radio-Canada that showed overwhelming support among Quebeckers, both for banning religious symbols and cutting immigration quotas.
The poll found 65 per cent of Quebeckers support the planned ban on religious symbols for teachers. Support was even higher for the ban on prison guards, police officers, prosecutors and judges.
Sixty-four per cent of Quebeckers surveyed supported cutting the province’s immigration quota from about 50,000 new arrivals to 40,000. Mr. Legault says he wants to ensure immigrants are better integrated into the job market and the francophone majority.
The opposition criticized Mr. Legault for adding few new details in a speech that largely repeated election-campaign promises. “This government has been in place for two months and they don’t seem to have advanced on very many files,” said Pierre Arcand, the interim Liberal leader.
Mr. Legault launched his speech citing Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era speech telling Americans they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” Pascal Bérubé, interim leader of the Parti Québécois, pointed out the U.S. President followed those words by launching some of the most ambitious social programs and public-works projects in modern history.
“Mr. Legault spoke repeatedly of being audacious, but his speech audaciously revealed nothing,” Mr. Bérubé said.
An update on the province’s finances on Monday should add more detail to some of the Premier’s plans. The previous Liberal government left behind a projected $3-billion surplus.
On education, Mr. Legault pledged to maintain steady, increased spending on the system even if the province has a recession. The previous government under Philippe Couillard was criticized for effectively freezing education spending early in its mandate while dramatically boosting spending just in time for the 2018 election.
Mr. Legault says his long-standing plan to abolish school boards would give schools more autonomy and save money. Central service centres would provide administrative support.
Alain Fortier, head of Quebec’s federation of school boards, applauded Mr. Legault’s stated commitment to education, but said the “planned disorganization” of the school system will do nothing to improve grades or graduation rates.
Quebec anglophone groups have promised to fight the school-board abolition, saying they are a key democratic tool for Quebec’s biggest minority-language community.