EMSB Chairman Joe Ortona’s Inaugural Address from November 11, 2020

Joe Ortona
Montreal - Friday, November 13, 2020

Fellow Commissioners, Ms. Alfonsi, Me Duhême, Directors and the EMSB community. I wish to welcome you to the first meeting of the new EMSB Council of Commissioners.

All of us were elected by our constituents and they have entrusted us to manage and control our schools on their behalf and in their interest.

I have full trust that this new and renewed Council will function with efficiency, honesty, integrity and transparency.

I don’t need to stress to anyone in this room how important good school board governance is. We have all seen what can happen as a result of bad governance, or as I would more appropriately describe the past situation at EMSB, bad members within governance.

As a person holding public office, that of chair and official spokesman of the EMSB, I am accountable to both the Council and the public. Commissioners, as people holding public office, you are accountable to the public and each other as well. This accountability should not only apply when the public demands it. We, as elected officials, should demand it of ourselves.

It is incumbent upon us to hold public meetings with the decorum and respect expected of us. The public and the people who work for this Board deserve nothing less. As I look around this table, I have full confidence that we are above this and that it will always occur.  But nothing of what I just said should be construed so as to restrict the freedom of speech inherent in a commissioner’s function. Commissioners must speak freely and independently during our deliberations. Constructive debates, in a respectful and civil manner, are actually healthy for democracy.

We should be proud of our school board, first and foremost, for its success rate which continues to be the highest in the province every year. While our amazing volunteers, mostly made up of parents, know the community and the great things happening in our schools, we must market these successes to the general population, especially to the families who are looking at the private sector. Not only do we have the highest success rate of any public school board, and school service centre, in Quebec; we are on par with the private sector. We must counter the public perception that the private system is better. Compared to the EMSB, it’s not. Based on our success rate vis-à-vis that of private schools there is but a tiny gap between the two.  We provide educational services to everyone.

In the last mandate, the National Assembly adopted legislation to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols for all persons in a position of authority, including principals and teachers and disgracefully invoked the notwithstanding clause. The EMSB believes in secularity and the separation of church and state. We maintain that it is entirely consistent for the state to be irreligious, while respecting an individual’s right to freedom of religion. A religious symbol worn by a teacher in no way impacts their ability to teach and provide quality education in a secular state.

At the EMSB we value inclusiveness and diversity. This legislation is contrary to the values of diversity, acceptance, tolerance and respect for individual rights and religious freedoms that we teach our children. It is for these reasons we challenged Bill 21 before the courts and I’m proud to chair a linguistic minority school board that stands in solidarity with religious minorities across Quebec.

The government also tried to abolish the only democratic institutions managed and controlled by the English-speaking community. It goes without saying that we will never compromise our right to manage and control our school boards. I’m proud to be a part this constitutional challenge and I applaud the Quebec English School Boards Association’s leadership in defending our minority language educational rights under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Bill 40 is not only fought in court, but in practice, and it is important that we act, as a Council and as a School Board, in compliance with section 23. This which must be the first consideration in all decisions, from the administration and day-to-day management of the board, to deliberations of the Council.

The commissioners on the Governance and Ethics Committee must ensure that our by-laws and policies and all of the rules that govern the EMSB, comply in full with section 23.

The advisory committee on (student) transportation must relook at the transportation boundaries of the schools in our system, adopted many years ago in a purely partisan fashion, make necessary adjustments where warranted, and if necessary, launch a board-wide consultation of the EMSB Parents Committee  and our governing boards to modernize the transportation boundaries to today’s reality.

With this new Council in this new mandate come new challenges. While section 23 guarantees our right as a linguistic minority to manage and control our school board, we must always ensure that we do so in a responsible manner and by prioritizing student safety and student success above all else. The biggest challenge for this mandate will undoubtedly be the pandemic. We must do everything we possibly can to ensure our students, teachers and staff are in a safe and secure environment at all times.

I am hopeful for what the next few years will bring. I know we can all work together. Everyone sitting at this table and those watching and listening are committed to ensuring that all girls and boys are able to realize their full potential. Our students will always remain our first priority while our core values to work in the best interests of the children will remain the same. Fellow Commissioners, the Parents’ Committee and the broader community have placed a trust in you to guide the EMSB forward. They have placed their faith in you to work together to meet whatever challenges we face. It will take hard work and require commitment to finding common ground.

Remember that we are here today because of the generations who came before us,   dreamed of a better future and sacrificed their today for our tomorrow. Now, it is our turn. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

There’s no better time than now. Let’s get started!

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