An Uncompromising Landscape

An Uncompromising Landscape: Quebec’s Language Debate Reopened
By Ruby Pratka
David Meffe remembers his mother telling him how hard it was for her to get to school.
The daughter of Italian immigrants in Montreal, she was not allowed to attend a French-language school across the street from her home, and had to go to an English one much farther away.
“In the ’60s, the system was the opposite of what it is now,” Meffe explains. “Back then, immigrants were actually not allowed to have a French education, as it was reserved more or less for the French only.”
Since then, however, Quebec’s education system has taken a U-turn. The Charter of the French Language, passed in 1977, made French the official language of Quebec in all domains including education, and those who wanted to attend public school in English had to present a “certificate of eligibility.”
Certificates were initially granted only to students whose parents had been educated in English in Quebec, explains Brent Tyler, a Montreal lawyer who handles many language rights cases affecting the anglophone community.
This was later extended to students who had received the “major part” of their education in English in Canada, or whose parents or siblings had done the same. Then, in 2002, Quebec tightened the rules, passing Law 104, declaring that time spent in private schools could not be counted in this “major part.”
The issue re-entered the public eye in October 2009, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the 2002 law unconstitutional, in a case that Tyler litigated.
The Court gave the Quebec government one year to seek a compromise.
This being Quebec, that process has been far easier said than done. Pierre Foucher, a University of Ottawa law professor specializing in language rights, says he believes a solution can be found to please all sides, but, as for how: “If I would know, I’d be rich.”
Marcus Tabachnick, head of Montreal’s English-language Lester B. Pearson School Board, told the CBC the bill was “patently unfair.”
“It doesn’t have to be fixed,” he said, “It has to be sent away.”
Voices within the opposition Parti Québécois, however, have called for Quebec to use the notwithstanding clause to require unsubsidized private schools to work in French. Additionally, the party’s youth committee unanimously approved a recommendation to restrict access by non-anglophone students to English-language CEGEPs, or colleges.
Meffe says many of his French-speaking friends have gone to English CEGEPs to improve their language skills, due to the low quality of English education in some French public schools—such as the one he attended.
Tyler says many parents acknowledge the low quality of English-language education in French-language schools.
“We have English-language schools where the teaching is 80 to 90 per cent in French, and I have francophone parents knocking on my door wanting to find out how to get their kids eligible for those schools, because they know how good the English and French are.”
PQ youth committee vice-president Gabrielle Lemieux admits that “students go to English CEGEPs to learn English.”
“We need to improve the quality of English courses in French CEGEPs, and French courses in English CEGEPs,” she says.
About 13,000 graduates of French high schools go to English CEGEPs, as do half of all allophones, says Pierre Curzi, the PQ National Assembly critic for language policy and education.
“That puts a lot of pressure on French as a working language in Quebec, and we’ve worked hard to make French the working language.”
Foucher says requiring 17- and 18-year-olds to attend certain CEGEPs would restrict freedom of choice. “At the college level, (students) are adults,” he says. “And they should be able to choose.”
However, Curzi says this language issue is larger than freedom of choice.
“There has to be a balance in society between personal choice and collective choice,” he says. “You can’t drink whatever you want wherever you want, for example.
“We respect completely the rights of the English minority,” he says.  “But Montreal is going very quickly into anglicization and the integration of immigrants is not going well.”
Immigrants do not qualify for certificates of eligibility under most circumstances, and Curzi argues that removing Law 104 gave some immigrant and francophone parents “a right to buy” an English education – which he calls unreasonable.
So, Law 104 was needed to “correct the loophole” which allowed students to enroll for very short periods in private schools and then become eligible for the public system, says PQ intergovernmental affairs critic Alexandre Cloutier.
Tyler acknowledges that there were private English “bridging schools,” with, for example, “four Grade 1 sections and one Grade 2 section” designed expressly to get students eligible for the English public system.
However, he says he believes his clients were within their rights to use them to get their kids into the English system.
“My concern is with the word ‘loophole,’ ” he says. “My clients never tried to get around anything; they were just exercising their constitutional rights.”
Curzi argues that “the state is not obliged to respect individual choice” with regard to language in Quebec.
Tyler as a Quebecker, he understands the province’s “linguistic insecurity,” but  in his view “the French language is not in danger and doesn’t justify coercive legislation.”
Curzi argues that French in Quebec is in a vulnerable position, surrounded by the “very seductive” influence of American culture.
“If we don’t do something,” he says, “our culture is going to disappear.”
Indeed, Quebec is not the only jurisdiction that operates in a national minority language, but perhaps the only one where the issue strikes such an emotional chord.
Eric Viladrich, a professor at the Université de Montréal, comes from Spain’s Catalonia region, around Barcelona.  The local official language there, Catalan, coexists with Spanish.
“There is no language debate,” he says of his home region. “Catalan is the language of education, although Catalan students take several of their subjects in Spanish, which is the language of teaching in the rest of the country.
“It’s possible to speak of a Spanish-speaking community there like our English community here,” he says. There are lots of Spanish-speaking families there, but they are assimilated.”
Xavier Vila, a specialist in language in education at the University of Barcelona, adds that the presence of Spanish speakers in Catalonia only dates back to the early 20th century – in marked contrast to the established English minority in Quebec, which has been present for centuries.
What’s more, Catalans don’t seem to share Quebecois fears about their language being on the road to extinction.
“There’s no apocalyptic discourse,” Viladrich says. “In the 1960s, when Catalan was forbidden by Franco’s dictatorship, we had many Spanish-speaking immigrants who came here, and they learned the language,” he says.
“Since 2000 we have had a huge wave of immigrants, 150,000 in a population of seven million, most of whom have some knowledge of Spanish, but they know that by knowing Catalan they can progress socially.”
Vila says there are no laws preventing Catalan-speaking students from pursuing education in Spanish.
“But why should they choose it?” he says. “Students in Catalan schools get fluency in both Catalan and Spanish.”
For the most part, Viladrich says, few people are dissatisfied with the language of education.
“Only a small political party, 10 per cent, say every person must choose the language, but that opens the door to separation. We should not separate people according to the language of their parents.”
In contrast, closer to home, in New Brunswick, students can choose their language of education without obstacles.
Nothing restricts francophone students from receiving an English education, or immigrants from studying in the language of their choice, says Catherine Stewart, policy and legislative affairs director for the New Brunswick ministry of education.
There also is no public debate on educational policy comparable to that in Quebec, she adds.
In Quebec, Tyler and others in the English minority consider attempts to make all education in one language “coercive. ”
The language of education, Meffe says, “should be no one’s decision but their own.”
However, francophone activists such as Curzi and Lemieux say they fear Quebec’s francophone heritage will disappear if English education is accessible to all.
Both are left to compromise, even though all sides believe, in Tyler’s words, that “in an ideal world there should be no compromise.”
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