A new board of trustees was to be sworn in at the Winnipeg School Division meeting Monday night and many of its members are ready to shake things up.
At their inaugural meeting, trustees were to be presented with a motion calling for permanent residents — not just citizens — and those 16 and older to get the right to vote for school trustees.
The Newcomer and Students' Right to Vote motion was to be tabled by re-elected Ward Three trustee Mark Wasyliw. Even if his motion is debated and passed at a future meeting, it will then require amendments to legislation that the provincial government isn't likely to approve any time soon.
That doesn't discourage newly-elected Winnipeg School Division trustee Yijie (Jennifer) Chen, who says the motion has momentum.
"I'm glad to see this motion for the first time going to the school board," said Chen, who was part of the non-partisan Got Citizenship? Go Vote! campaign in the run-up to the Oct. 24 municipal and school board elections.
Twenty-five per cent of Winnipeg's population is made up of immigrants, said Chen, who immigrated from China. The Got Citizenship? campaign was launched by a coalition of newcomer and ethnocultural groups to encourage new Canadians to exercise their right to vote. It also lobbied for permanent residents to be given the right to vote in municipal and school board elections.
Wasyliw's motion was welcomed by the Got Citizenship? group.
"It is a great thing that he is introducing this at the school trustee level because it is the right place to start this conversation," said Abdikheir Ahmed, the director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, which co-ordinated the Got Citizenship? campaign.
The campaign isn't what influenced Wasyliw to put forward the motion, the trustee said before Monday's school board meeting.
"It's who we are as the Winnipeg School Division," said Wasyliw. "We have the vast majority of newcomer students attending our schools."
The rules now state that you can vote if you own property in the division and are a Canadian citizen — even if you don't live there. Meanwhile, those who live there and pay taxes can't vote unless they have Canadian citizenship, leaving out thousands of permanent residents, he said.
"It seems crazy," said Wasyliw. "Why on earth can't you get a vote? You can live here as a permanent resident for 30 years and have all your children go through our schools— it seems so outrageous. I don't think there's a defensible argument to not allow newcomers to vote."
His motion asks the board of the Winnipeg School Division to adopt as its official position that all division residents, regardless of citizenship, be entitled to vote in an election for Winnipeg School Division trustees, that the voting age be lowered to 16 and that voters be allowed to swear an oath rather than be required to present photo identification or two pieces of non-photo identification.
"I'm a big believer that the voting age should be lowered to 16," said Wasyliw. "We are a school board and our primary clients are students. Why don't they have a substantial say?"
Getting people in the habit of voting when they're young could go a long way toward increasing dismal voter turnout, he said. Voter turnout for municipal and school board elections is generally the lowest among all levels of government, with younger voters traditionally the least likely to vote.
"The research is very clear," said Wasyliw. "Voting is habit forming."
Wasyliw also wants the school division to amend the voting act to allow for sworn votes, so voters don't need identification.
"We have some of the poorest postal codes in the province (in Winnipeg School Division)," he said. Current voting requirements to have photo identification or two pieces of non-photo identification are leaving out too many impoverished and homeless people, said Wasyliw.
His motion, if passed by the new slate of trustees, would have a letter drafted on their behalf, asking for a meeting with the Minister of Education to discuss changing sections of the Municipal Councils and School Boards Elections Act. The changes have the support of new trustee Chen, who represents Ward 6, which includes Chinatown and a community largely made up of Indigenous residents and resettled African refugees.
"I hope this momentum continues to get more awareness from both the newcomer community and the local community so we can get working on it," said Chen.
When asked why he tabled such a motion now, Wasyliw said it's because it has a chance of passing.
"I think I'm in a position now where we have a progressive majority at the the Winnipeg School Division," he said.
"We are a much younger, much more diverse board," he said. "You're going to see some of that diversity come out in policies that show how inclusive we can be.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
Updated on Monday, November 5, 2018 at 11:10 PM CST: Adds photo