If your spouse has the right to vote on your kids’ future school trustees, shouldn’t you also have the right to vote? Is there an instance where parents of the same children should be afforded different voting rights? That is the question my husband and I have been grappling with over the last couple of months.
The city is abuzz, gearing up towards its civic and school board elections, and Manitoba’s Francophone school division (DSFM) will be holding its school trustee elections next week. Normally I would be pretty excited. When I turned 18, the thing I was most psyched for was not to drink legally (though that was pretty fun), but to have the right to vote.
Earlier this year, the government announced that the eligible DSFM voters list had been expanded in time for this year’s election. This was greeted with great fanfare – on the surface, it looked like a big improvement. But upon closer inspection, we can see that there are still a lot of people left off the voting list. I am one of them.
Prior to these changes, the only way you got to vote in the DSFM trustee elections was to have a child currently enrolled in a DSFM school. This meant that only a fraction of the population who have a vested interest in Francophone education in our province got to vote. Once your kids graduated, you were out of luck. Even more incredibly, even if you yourself had graduated from a DSFM school, you couldn’t vote, not until you had kids and they were in school.
The changes that were announced earlier this year did greatly expand the number of voters. Now, most graduates of the DSFM, parents of those graduates, current students who are 18 or older, and parents who have a child enrolled in a preschool that is offered within a DSFM school can also vote. This is a huge step in the right direction, but it still denies the right to vote to many people who should have a say on Francophone schools in Manitoba.
I am the parent of two children who will attend Francophone school, and who have this right by virtue of the fact that their father is an “ayant droit” — an “entitled person” who can send his children to Francophone school because his first language was French. But while my husband finally has the right to vote in the upcoming elections, I will not.
It comes down to the interpretation of the Public Schools Act and of the regulation that expanded the voter list earlier this year. Read one way (a more inclusive way), it gives the right to vote to anyone who is married to someone who has the right the vote. Read another way (the way the DSFM board and the province have chosen to interpret it), it does not.
My husband has spent the last few weeks trying to get a solid answer on whether this could possibly be the case. Could they really be choosing to interpret the law in a way that is so exclusive? Could they really be saying that in a married couple, one person has the right to vote but the other doesn’t get to vote until the children are in school? We don’t understand what could possibly be the reason for denying families the right to vote in the system they have the right to enrol their kids in.
To this end, he has started a petition to urge the province to use the more liberal and inclusive interpretation and allow spouses who are otherwise ineligible the right to vote. I would be thrilled if you signed it and shared widely with your networks!
Let’s pause for a moment to discuss DSFM funding. While the DSFM is a public school system, it does not collect taxes directly from property tax bills, as do the other school divisions. Instead, it receives transfers from the other school divisions based on how many students would have gone to school in that division, had they not been enrolled in the DSFM.
What this means is that I get to vote for Winnipeg School Division trustees just by virtue of living within the division, even though my kids won’t go to WSD schools. But I will not get to vote for the trustees of the school division my kids will attend, because I apparently don’t meet the criteria. Being married to someone who has the right to vote is not enough.
It comes down to this for me. Why should a say in governance be limited to such a small group of people? Kids are in school for 13 years, 15 if they do preschool for two years. That gives you at the very most, four opportunities to vote for trustees; in many cases, only three. In my particular case, my older child will be in Grade 3 before I get to vote.
Doesn’t it make sense for people to vote on who will represent their interests BEFORE their kids are in school? By what logic does it make sense to say,”Okay, once your kids are have graduated, you can keep voting forever, but you don’t get a say until they actually start school?”
In my own family, my husband, his siblings, and his parents can all vote now, thanks to the expanded voter list. This is excellent; they’ve been waiting a long time for this. But among the spouses, even though we all have children who will eventually attend the DSFM, not one of us can vote because none of us graduated from the DSFM. We are a motley crew with varying levels of proficiency in French: one went to Francophone school in another province, two went to immersion, and one to English school, yet we all support our kids’ rights to French education as much as our DSFM graduate spouses do.
Even among the urban DSFM trustee candidates themselves, there are at least two who have spouses who can’t vote yet, like me. How is this possibly right or fair?
The fact is, I almost got to vote this year. We applied for preschool (prématernelle) this year, and did not get a spot. We’re on a waiting list. If we had gotten a spot, I’d be able to vote. But in my view, there are several problems with giving preschool parents the right to vote anyway.
- Almost all of the province’s Francophone preschools are run through non-profit daycares that are located inside DSFM schools. They are not actually run by the DSFM.
- There are limited preschool spots (from what I understand, usually about 10 spaces per school). The spots that are there are filled based not on a first-come, first-served or lottery system, but by a long list of priorities that ensures children who already have a sibling in the daycare or school, or who have a parent working in the daycare, etc., etc, get first dibs on preschool spots.
- Preschool isn’t free, like school is.
I understand the spirit of giving preschool parents the right to vote in the DSFM trustee elections, and I do agree with it in theory: if you care enough about your children’s francophone education to enroll them in Francophone preschool rather than English or immersion preschool, you should have say in how the division is governed.
But when you look at those aspects of preschool enrollment being linked to the right to vote, you see some major problems. You can imagine that it doesn’t take long for those spots to fill up with children who already have an “in” to the system, so to speak – so there isn’t space available to just anyone who wants it. Assuming you did get a spot, what if you can’t afford it? Too poor to vote? I know that sounds a bit sensational, but think about it.
In my view, until the DSFM can offer free preschool to every child who wants a spot, the right to vote should not be linked to having a child in preschool.
To make matters worse, completely aside from the spousal voting issue, the fact is that as I mentioned earlier, many important and involved members of the province’s Francophone community still do not have the right to vote because they either graduated before 1995, do not have children, or do not meet the other requirements. And there are plenty of people out there who fit that bill.
For now, allowing spouses vote alongside their partners is a good step in the right direction.
P.S. The DSFM urban candidates debate is tonight at École Christine-Lespérance (425 John Forsyth Rd) from 7 to 9pm.