Last week I covered a meeting between angry parents from Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School (P.E.T.E.S.) in Vaudreuil and Lester B. Pearson School Board officials for Your Local Journal. The parents were furious because the school board had decided that everyone living in a particular zone of Vaudreuil, Zone 57, would no longer be zoned as having P.E.T.E.S. as their elementary school. Instead, starting next school year their children will be zoned to attend Mount Pleasant Elementary, a schoool 18.6 km away in Hudson.
I was assigned the story last minute and unfortunately didn’t know many of the parents as well as other media did but I’m somewhat familiar with the issues. My boyfriend’s niece and nephew attend P.E.T.E.S. and school zoning was a big consideration when his sister moved into a new house here in Vaudreuil (the city’s official name is Vaudreuil-Dorion but since what’s happening with the school is happening on the Vaudreuil side, let’s call it Vaudreuil). As well, we happen to live in the school zone at the heart of the controversy.
Quebec is weird compared to other parts of Canada. In most Canadian cities if your child is in the public system they probably attend the elementary closest to where you live.
In Quebec we now have two school board systems – French and English. Before Bill 101, Quebec’s language law, children from non-Catholic backgrounds most often would attend schools in the English system, often English Protestant schools but also English Catholic schools and English Catholic kids would often attend English Catholic schools. When this Charter of the French language passed in 1977, it dramatically changed who had the right to attend English schools. English-speaking people are a minority in Quebec, people with English as a mother tongue make up about eight percent of the population in the entire province, so when Bill 101 came about, it not only declared French as the official language of Quebec, it led to rules that said new immigrants who did not study in English in Canada could no longer send their children to Quebec’s English public schools.
In the late 1990s Quebec’s public school boards were reorganized so instead of being Catholic and Protestant they are now linguistic, based on French and English.
Many English schools are dying. They are being closed because they have nowhere near full enrollment. This declining enrolment may explain why school zones seem bigger geographically than what you in other places. Or maybe I’m wrong on this. I get the impression the geographical distances children in Quebec travel to and from public schools are quite large.
What’s weird about the Vaudreuil situation is this place is so popular with the English community we have too many children for the local elementary school, a draw for many families moving here and building homes here. P.E.T.E.S. has been overcrowded since its beginnings and has two portables on site. Demographic projections suggest it will continue to be at 105 or 110 percent capacity or more if the board doesn’t do something. As well, Quebec has rules that say a permanent extension to the school may not be built or a new school built unless other schools within an 20 km radius are full (some sources say the schools have to be at 85 percent capacity). So what that means for the parents of Zone 57 is that until other English schools of the same type (French Immersion), the struggling schools within 20 km, are fuller, for instance the school in Hudson or one in the West Island, in Kirkland, there won’t be a new school in Vaudreuil.
You’d to visit to understand just how ridiculous the situation is. Vaudreuil used to be farmland and there is land all over the place, mind you a lot of it is zoned for commercial purposes, for say hotels or big box stores or car dealerships, but definitely enough land to build a few more schools. While Vaudreuil is “off-island,” i.e. off the Island of Montreal, it’s not that close to Hudson, which is also “off-island.” It takes at least 20 minutes by car to get to Hudson from Vaudreuil. As well, most parents living here work in the West Island or in downtown Montreal and you have to go over a bridge and negotiate traffic to head to work. We have access to a commuter train but getting to work takes time.
But because P.E.T.E.S. is part of an anglophone school board, efforts to tackle overcrowding mean trying to convince unhappy suburban parents that their children need to help fill up other English public schools for the sake of the entire anglophone community. This doesn’t wash with parents who are worried about the time it will take to commute to and from school and work. It destroys people’s dreams of walking or biking with their their young children to and from school, and their children having friends from the same school in the same neighbourhood.
As someone who grew up in Montreal, this story is foreign to me. As a child attending Willingdon Elementary I took a school bus (sometimes even a repurposed city bus) to school. Our bus made many stops and I probably spent 20-25 minutes each way on the bus from Grade 1 through Grade 6 though driving to my school would have probably taken about six minutes. I realize this is a big difference from the 20 minutes it takes to drive to Hudson. Still as a child I really enjoyed taking a school bus and my parents had no problem with it.
In recent years the school board for my old elementary school, Willingdon, rezoned some areas and children living where I grew up now have to attend a different school. When my son attended Willingdon I remember another mom who lived outside Willingdon’s school zone, just a block north of us, used a false address, the address of a friend living in the school zone, so that her daughter could continue to attend.
Unless Quebec’s rules change these parents are stuck. It’s ridiculous that P.E.T.E.S is a victim of its own popularity. It’s too bad building a new school has become such a challenge. A number of Zone 57 parents are threatening to place their children in local French schools. Others may leave Vaudreuil altogether, abandoning their suburban dream.
In Part Two I’ll go into into discrepancies between an account given by the school board of efforts to build a new school and comments Vaudreuil-Dorion’s mayor, Guy Pilon, made to CBC last week.
More about this story:
Petition initiated by Zone 57 parent Lorina Walker
Article I wrote (I made an unfortunate typo in one of Lorina Walker’s quotes. It needs to be corrected but does change the meaning of the quote – explanation may be found on Your Local Journal’s Facebook page).
Global TV coverage: