Legault looks at legality of YNN

By: Karen Seidman

The Montreal Gazette Tuesday 22 June 1999

Uncomfortable with schoolkids being told to "just do it" and eat their corn flakes from the sanctuary of their classrooms, Education Minister Francois Legault has ordered his lawyers to examine the legality of airing the Youth News Network in Quebec schools.

The teachers' union of the Lester B. Pearson School Board also believes that a pilot project introducing a mandatory news program and commercials in three high schools this fall might have overstepped a legal boundary outlined in the Education Act.

Alain Leclerc, a press aide to Legault, said yesterday that the minister "doesn't like (YNN) at all" and that he should have an answer from his lawyers in the next few days.

Officials at the Montreal-based Athena Educational Partners Inc.- the force behind YNN - didn't seem rattled by the news that Legault has launched an investigation into their service.

"We would like a chance to discuss it with them," said YNN vice-president (marketing) Gary Pelletier.

Meanwhile, he said, YNN will likely be introduced into 30 schools across the country this fall. He said it has been approved for 20 to 25 schools to date.

But Nova Scotia and British Columbia are opposed to YNN, and Pelletier said New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island might also come out against allowing YNN into their schools.

The Pearson Teachers Union is fuming about the board's decision a week ago allowing YNN into Hudson, Beaconsfield and Macdonald High Schools this fall in exchange for TVs, computers and other electronic equipment.

They say the Education Act prohibits such a deal.

"It's possible that what they did is illegal because of a restriction saying the governing board may not receive gifts," said Jim Wilson, president of the PTU. "This is not over yet."

In making its decision, the school board noted that the pilot project had been approved unanimously by the governing boards of the schools.

The Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers has written to Legault urging him to voice its opposition to YNN.

"We don't think commercial advertising is the first thing kids should be seeing in the morning," said QPAT executive director Alan Lombard.

The Education Act stipulates that "the governing board may not solicit or receive gifts, legacies, grants or other contributions to which conditions incompatible with the mission of the school are attached, particularly conditions relative to any form of commercial solicitation."

Marcus Tabachnick, chairman of the Pearson board, said YNN is compatible with the mission of the schools.

"This means the school can't become a franchisee of Second Cup, that a school can't be turned into a commercial venture," Tabachnick said yesterday. "It's unfortunate that Mr. Wilson and his gang can't support their own teachers on this."

At the Pearson board meeting last week, teachers spoke passionately for and against the proposal.

Jean-Paul Fossey, a teacher at Riverdale High School, said YNN "allows companies to infiltrate one area as yet untouched by crass commercialism." He said the programming was "suspect" and "education should be more enobling."

Luke Horne, who teaches at Beaconsfield High School, argued that news programming benefits children and, besides, commercialism has already hit schools.

Students "come home with Scholastic book orders which advertise commercial books like Star Wars, the Grade 10 math program calls for a Texas Instruments calculator,their books have to be Hilroy, and Crayola advertises in schools all the time," Horne said.

"The fact is if we're going into the future, we're going to need some financial and material support."