Parents in Quebec file charter challenge against province’s back-to-school policy

“It’s unreasonable to force people’s conscience,” says Julius Grey.

A Montreal-based lawyer has filed a legal challenge in Quebec Superior Court, claiming that forcing children to attend in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic violates their charter rights.

A group of parents opted to move forward with the legal challenge in hopes of forcing Quebec to offer remote learning services to families who don’t want their children returning to classrooms this fall.

Julius Grey said the motion he filed in Quebec Superior Court on Friday argues that while the government is entitled to make “basic curriculum decisions,” they are not entitled to make fundamental decisions about “life, death, and security.”

“The decision to send a child, physically, back to school is one which involves an evaluation of the risk of illness or death to the child, for parents, for grandparents – and this is the type of decision that should not be made by a minister based on regulations,” Grey told APTN News in a phone interview.

“It’s unreasonable to force people’s conscience,” he added.

The province’s back-to-school plan offers online learning services only if a child or someone in their household has a medical condition that puts them at risk of health complications due to COVID-19.

Grey says he’s also concerned by a provision regarding health-related exemptions.

“It appears that in the forms for exemption for children with medical conditions, you’re not guaranteed your place next year – which means it’s not an exemption, it’s an authorization to leave the system,” he explained.

“Places in school are valuable things; if you’ve been placed in a school, having the choice of a few zoom courses, and then not having your place, is not fair,” Grey said.

According to a newly-released, 21-page Quebec Public Health document: “[I]t is recommended that children with chronic illness attend their educational facility,” including those who are being treated for cancer, those with asthma, or those who have recently undergone an organ transplant.

Children without a medical exemption will have to attend classes or be home-schooled, Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge repeated this week.

“If (they) present a risk for health, of course we will help those kids to learn at home with the help of teachers and support staff,” Roberge said at a news conference in Quebec City. “But if the kids don’t have some sickness related to COVID-19, the best place is to go to school, of course.”

On Monday, Roberge announced $20 million in funding aimed at temporarily hiring about 350 teachers and specialists who can help children who have fallen behind due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

But the COVID-related risks have not disappeared altogether.

On Friday, Quebec reported its first COVID-related death of a person under 20.

According to information published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, an estimated 97,000 children were infected with COVID-19

For the most part, First Nations communities in Quebec have been formulating their own workable plans ahead of this mandated return to school.

The Mohawk Community of Kahnawake, for example, is confident it will be pushing back its school start date, but will only be releasing a comprehensive plan after conducting a survey among community members.

With a lull in cases seen in the territory of Eeyou Ischee, the Cree School Board deemed it safe for children to return to classes.

“Keeping the groups stable, that was the main aspect that our public health authority told us was to keep our students in the same room as much as possible and only have the teacher changing,” Kimberly Quinn, Director of school operations for the Cree School board, explained.

According to Quinn, without an active outbreak of COVID-19 on the territory, masks will not be mandatory.

The Kativik School board in Northern Quebec is set to release a back-to-school plan next week after consulting with Quebec and regional health authorities.

Although they had prepared for classes resuming, the Atikamekw community of Manawan had to delay its reopening plan after an important shipment of sanitary equipment didn’t come through.

“We ordered masks, visors – we also ordered plexiglass panels, which are very expensive and hard to find,” said Annette Dube, Director of Manawan Educational Services.

An additional hurdle, according to Dube, is recruiting teachers who are willing to work in a remote area in the midst of a pandemic.

“Of course it’s difficult to force them to do something against their will,” Dube added. “We had trouble finding teachers. We relaxed a lot of the measures in relation to that.”

For the Innu of Uashat mak Mani Utenam, school officially begins on Aug. 31. A trial run, held earlier in August so students could catch up on lessons missed during the 2019-2020 school year, went well, according to ITUM’s education director Vicky Lelievre.

Lelievre says that a survey among parents in the community showed most were on-board with sending their children back to school.

Classes are already underway in the Algonquin community of Pikogan. Their education director says children are adapting well to the new guidelines set forth by public health.

“On the first day, if an adult wasn’t going in the right direction, a student would look at them as if to say, ‘Hmm, that’s not right,’” explained Jovette Kistapish. “Children adapt so much more easily than adults.”

Despite having the option, Grey says many parents don’t have the capacity to homeschool.

He added that the government is “clearly capable” of providing distance learning, since it is doing so for children who have health exemptions.

Despite insistence that citizens adapt to this “new normal,” Grey believes Quebec has little to no reason to object to the adapted plans put forth by First Nations.

“I’d be surprised,” he told APTN. “I’ve been surprised before by governments that have a tendency to meddle, but I think they would probably respect First Nations schools.

He says he’ll seek an emergency hearing on the matter in the hopes of getting a decision in the next few weeks.

With files from The Canadian Press.

Reporter / Montreal

Lindsay was born and raised on the unceded territory of Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), and joined APTN News as a Quebec correspondent in 2019. While in university, she collaborated on a multiplatform project about the revitalization of the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Before APTN Lindsay worked at the Eastern Door, CTV Montreal and the Montreal Gazette.

Reporter / Montreal

A proud member of the Innu Nation, Sylvie is from the community of Uashat mak Mani-utenam in Northeastern Quebec. Sylvie worked for her council as a communications officer, after being a journalist for community radio in her community. Since 2019 she has worked as a reporter for the French weekly newscast Nouvelles Nationales d’APTN.