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By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Marlene Jennings, a former Liberal MP, is working to unite English-speaking community members in her new role as president of the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN).

QCGN, a non-profit linking 53 English-language community organizations across the province, was subject to a public rift among its members last fall. Several organizations opted out of the network after butting heads with former president Geoffrey Chambers.

But Jennings is in now, and she plans to open up a dialogue with all QCGN members, including those lost last year. She also wants to approach different organizations that aren’t involved with QCGN, but provide important services for the English-speaking community.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen over night, but we’re hoping that with QCGN 2.0 renewal that we’ll have the structure, which will allow for this kind of work to happen and these kinds of relationships to be created and established and to be nourished,” Jennings said.

The goal is to bring the network into the 21st century, she added in an interview with The Record, and to ensure that the QCGN is the primary advocacy group for English-speaking minority communities in Quebec.

Her first order of business, however, is mending government relations, both federal and provincial. Jennings said she is in the process of contacting like-minded, and not so like-minded, MPs and MNAs in an effort to share English-speakers’ concerns.

The French language debate has intensified over the last few months, she continued, and “virtually all of the parties in Ottawa are talking about permitting and supporting the application of the French charter to federally regulated businesses in Quebec.”

“We’re going to be working hard to reframe that debate because the way it’s framed right now we’re not part of the equation and the whole vision of Canada with two equal languages is also no longer part of the framework,” she added.

Jennings is also confident with QCGN’s leadership. Vice-President Kevin Shaar and board member Joan Fraser are both long-time English-speaking community advocates. And she is already receiving messages from people looking to volunteer.

She got an email from someone who has worked closely with Franco-Ontarian communities eager to offer their support. Jennings plans to rewrite the narrative by establishing relationships with French-speakers across the country.

“People are stepping up to the plate, which is great, and we’re in the process of developing a framework, key messages and a series of different campaigns; reaching out to opinion leaders within our community, across the province, but also outside,” Jennings said.

But before she was tasked with righting the ship at QCGN, Jennings was placed at the helm of the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) — the largest English public school board in the province. Quebec’s Ministry of Education named her trustee in 2019.

Jennings spent a year reinvigorating what many considered a dysfunctional board. She said that when she arrived everyone from top-level managers to teachers on the ground believed the EMSB needed a profound change.

“Part of what happened under my mandate was that we developed a transformation, an organizational and cultural action plan to actually put into effect,” said Jennings.

She reorganized personnel and gave more power to the incoming director general, managers and coordinators of various departments. She believes the council of commissioners adopted too much power over time.

However, some argue she spent most of her time making changes for the Quebec government. When she took over as trustee, Bill 40, a law created to turn school boards into service centres, had just passed. A source at the EMSB said Jennings set up the board like a service centre.

There was no ill intent from Jennings, the source added, the law had passed and she had a job to do. Eastern Township School Board (ETSB) Chair Mike Murray, on the other hand, said during a council meeting last month that he believes there was a devolution of power at the EMSB.

He said the changes Jennings made during her brief tenure reduced the council of commissioners to a support role. But the newly elected QCGN president said there remains a need for school boards.

Jennings said the government should have postponed English school board elections indefinitely back in September. She also believes the Quebec government needs to allow for mail-in voting. The process works, she said, just look at the United States of America.

“We’ve always said that if mail-in ballots are allowed, or even become the only vehicle for voter participation, that voter participation will probably increase four-fold, maybe five-fold, maybe even more,” Jennings said.

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