The Education Across Borders Collective would have celebrated a bill guaranteeing the right to primary and secondary education for all. Unfortunately, Bill 144 only proposes modifying the conditions for access to schools.
We are very sceptical of the effectiveness of the bill, which suggests enlarging the right to free schooling to children whose parents ”ordinarily reside” in Quebec. We are not able to determine whether any additional category of children would have their right to free schooling respected. Confidentiality and access to school itself seem like they would remain at the discression of school and school board employees.
Concerning access to primary and secondary school for all children aged 6 to 16
Instead of breaking the link between immigration status and access to free schooling, the bill would only allows some children to have access. While it seems to present an additional option besides having one of the immigration statuses listed by current regulations, it would still be necessary to provide some kind of proof that a parent or guardian ”ordinarily resides” in Quebec.
What kind of proof will be asked or considered to judge this ”ordinary residence”? Ministre Proulx describes those excluded from free schooling as ”people who come here as visitors for a, for a while, under some circumstances that have noting to do with their attempt to establish themselves here” (1).
Sadly, under current immigration policies, many people have a ”visitor’s” status despite making considerable efforts to establish themselves here. Changes to Canada’s immigration system since the 2000s have tended to make precarious statuses – notably that of ”visitor” – the only way that many people can enter or stay in Canada, even among some of those who are seeking assylum. It is therefore not rare that migrants who wish to establish themselves here (often to flee political instablility or miserable conditions) are ineligible to arrive or stay with anything other than ”visitor’s” visas, which allows them at least to not become undocumented. For many people, it is better to have a minimal status than none at all.
Once arrived, ”visitors” often seek to obtain another status (as a refugee, worker, permanent resident, etc.) but for years may remain technically a ”visitor”. It is therefore not for a lack of an ”attempt to establish themselves here” that we meet many families that are excluded from school. Rather, restrictive immigraion policies keep many families in a state of precarity. Under Bill 144, it is clear that a proof of address will not be sufficient to prove a family’s ”ordinary residence.” The Bill continues to use immigration status as a criteria for access to schools.
At this stage, we are unable to determine whether or how families established here, but who have a visitor status, will be able to justify their ”ordinary residence,” even on a case by case basis. For families who are without any status, the requirement of such proof is an even greater obstacle to accessing free schooling. We know that many undocumented parents abandon the process of registering their children at school, most often because they are afraid of placing the entire family at risk of deportation by revealing too much information.
Bill 144 is far from offering a fundamental reform that would allow universal access to free schooling. Instead, practices of exclusion would continue, under barely modified categories, with exceptions determined on a case by case basis. This is no way to ensure that children attend school.
The confidentiality of personal information
As already mentioned, many children find themselves excluded from schools because they lack documents that are demanded by schools and school boards, especially immigration documents. While Bill 144 enlarges the possible criteria for access to free schooling, the dissuasive practice of demanding extensive information on families is maintained and is made even more concerning.
Indeed a considerable number of proposed changes to the law aim to formalize and expand access and sharing of personal information between ministries and gouvernment services, in order improve the identification of students (2). While these measures are mainly intended to ensure that students are attending recognized schools (especially those children who have access to RAMQ insurance), we are concerned to see that the law formalizes increased circulation of information on families without including any measures to protect confidentiality. The only references to confidentiality have been rhetorical, including by education minister Sébastien Proulx at the press conference that presented the bill.
By maintaining the system of providing access to free schooling for only some students, largely on the basis of their immigration status, this enlarged information sharing presents obvious challenges of confidentiality. The exclusion of undocumented families are afraid to reveal their immigration status can only be accentuated by the proposed changes. We had hoped, on the contrary, that a change to the law would result in information about a child’s immigration status no longer being necessary for accessing schools.
Current practices already show a disregard for the sensitivity of information on immigration statuses. Certain school boards, such as the Commission scolaire de Montréal, systematically ask all parents registering children to consent « for the verfication of the status of the child » to the school board’s seeking information from the Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Immigration Diversity and Inclusion Québec. It is also noteworthy that under the changes made by education minister Malavoy in 2013, children’s access to school without paying exorbitant fees can be conditional on their prooving that they are continuing to make efforts to regularize their immigration status (3).
It is time to acknowledgement that children’s access to school is a collective responsibility. The Quebec government must ensure that all children – without discrimination – have free access to school.
2. Article 11 most of all.
3. See page 12 of the 2013 Document d’information aux commissions scolaires pour l’inscription à l’école québécoise pour les enfants en situation d’immigration précaire.