The recent school board by-election in a Manitoba school division has significant implications for democracy

Michael-ZwaagstraThe recent by-election in the Louis Riel School Division (LRSD) in Manitoba attracted a lot of media attention, much more than usual.

That’s because this was the seat vacated last November by former Ward 1 trustee Francine Champagne. To say that her short tenure was controversial would be an understatement.

Let me explain.

Before resigning, Champagne was suspended three times by her fellow trustees for making controversial social media posts and refusing to sign the board’s code of conduct policy. In essence, the relationship between Champagne and her colleagues had become unworkable. Had she not resigned, the other trustees would likely have suspended her indefinitely.

Interestingly, five candidates stepped forward to replace Champagne – Ian Walker, Sandra Saint-Cyr, Marcel Boille, Jacqueline Cassel-Cramer, and Bob Lawrie. This meant voters had plenty of options when casting their ballots last week.

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Normally, incumbent trustees shy away from endorsing other candidates because they need to work with whoever gets elected.

However, in this case, two trustees, Ryan Palmquist and Chris Sigurdson, officially endorsed candidate Ian Walker. Palmquist even actively campaigned for Walker by knocking on doors and helping get out the vote on Election Day.

Board chair Sandy Nemeth did not officially endorse a candidate, but she did encourage people to “stand up and say no” to the views expressed by candidates Marcel Boille and Sandra Saint-Cyr. Her comments appeared in a Winnipeg Free Press story featuring these two candidates’ controversial “parental rights” messaging.

Interestingly, LRSD Superintendent Christian Michalik was quoted in the same story criticizing the claims in Saint-Cyr’s campaign literature. It’s highly unusual for a superintendent to publicly comment about specific candidates during a school board election since their job is to implement board policy, not to weigh in on politics.

In the end, Walker won 64 percent of the total vote. Saint-Cyr came in a distant second with 17 percent. But voter turnout was abysmally low. Out of the more than 25,000 eligible voters, fewer than 10 percent bothered to cast a ballot.

Still, 64 percent was a decisive win for Walker, even if only a few people voted. However, that still leaves a significant minority who voted for someone else. Most notably, the combined vote for Saint-Cyr and Boille (the two parental rights candidates) was over 23 percent. This means that their message on parental rights likely resonated with a quarter of those who voted.

Sadly, instead of extending an olive branch to these voters, the board chair cast aspersions on the more than 500 people who voted for Saint-Cyr and Boille by accusing them of supporting “thoughts and ideas that were harmful.”

School boards, like other democratic institutions, function best when elected representatives hold a variety of perspectives and are free to express themselves without being silenced by their colleagues. By pulling out the stops to ensure that only like-minded people get elected, the Louis Riel School Division board risks turning itself into an insular clique. This is bad for democracy, and it is bad for the education of children in the division.

If we want public schools to represent all families, we need to ensure that we don’t exclude some families because they hold the “wrong” opinions.

In the end, there is nothing inclusive about groupthink. All voices must be heard.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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