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Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge responds to the opposition during question period Wednesday, June 5, 2019 at the legislature in Quebec City, Que. Mr. Roberge said he had hoped the French and English school boards could negotiate an equitable arrangement without his intervention but time has run out.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

François Legault’s government is moving to transform three Montreal English schools into French ones over the objections of parents and the anglophone community, adding a linguistic rift to recent conflicts with the province’s minorities.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge took to French-language radio Tuesday morning to announce he will end months of controversy and seek a cabinet decree to change the linguistic vocation of the three anglophone schools. The move will displace about 713 anglophone students.

Montreal’s French schools must find room for 3,000 new students next year, including many immigrants and asylum-seekers who crossed the border from the United States in the past two years. The province requires immigrants to pursue education in French – a policy introduced in 1977 under Bill 101 that has helped protect the French language, but caused English school enrollment to plunge and then stagnate. The French system is cracking while the English system has hundreds of empty classrooms.

“The government of Quebec is penalizing a minority community,” said Dan Lamoureux, president of the Quebec English School Boards Association, adding the school transfer shows a lack of “consideration and respect.

“The government has decided that our voices don’t matter and that our students don’t matter.”

The conflict with the anglophone community is escalating the same week the government may invoke closure to pass two laws with implications for minorities. One law would reform the immigration system, introducing a values test after cutting the number of immigrants the province takes. A second law, Bill 21, would ban religious symbols among teachers, police officers, government lawyers and other civil servants considered authority figures.

Mr. Roberge said he had hoped the French and English school boards could negotiate an equitable arrangement without his intervention but time has run out. “I’m very disappointed,” he told reporters at the Quebec National Assembly. “I still believe we have a good relationship with the anglophone community.”

The English Montreal School Board, which controls the three schools on the trade block, has proposed sharing extra classrooms since the three schools are running at about 46-per-cent capacity. The board has also offered alternative buildings and land. The French school board in the east end of the city has declined the offers, saying sharing space hinders learning French for new arrivals and the other options are impractical for the urgent need.

Over all, the EMSB expects about 19,309 students next year with space set for 29,325 students. Mr. Roberge said that excess capacity “makes it easier” for the English board to find space than for the overloaded French board to create new spots.

Mr. Roberge said he would support sharing space but only as an interim measure. “One way or the other, schools are going to be transferred,” he said. “A lot of the young people in those schools are new arrivals or are from underprivileged multiethnic neighbourhoods and have a lot of work to do learning French.”

EMSB Chair Angela Mancini said the province has given the French school board no incentive to negotiate. “It is cavalier to say the least. We have a community that is waiting to know where their children are going, staff wondering the same thing,” she said. “It’s very difficult and emotional to start with, but the minister has put us in a bad position.”

Giovanni Sardo, the father of two children at Gerald McShane elementary school, one of the three slated for transfer, said losing it “is a huge blow for the English community.”

Gerald McShane is a vital anglophone hub as the only English primary school in his Montreal North neighbourhood, he said.

His Grade 2 and Grade 5 students live “a stone’s throw” from school now. While their next destination remains uncertain, their new bus commute could be 45 minutes. Mr. Sardo, who has four children in all, also has a child in the French-language system so he says he understands the challenge from both sides.

“At the end of the day we have 3,000 children looking for a place to learn. As a community, we’ve offered all kinds of solutions but the willingness to work together only seems to go on one side.”