Dawson College Montreal English institution Premier François Legault

Dawson College deserves better than Legault’s petty politics of discrimination

The Premier cancelled a desperately needed expansion project — one that he previously committed to, and has been seven years in the making — “because Dawson offers instruction in English.”

I walk by Dawson College often. The downtown Montreal English-language CEGEP on the border with Westmount is housed in a former nunnery built in 1908. It was once the Mother House of the Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, a religious community for women founded by Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1653. 

It’s an impressive building; simple but elegantly beautiful, the way old buildings designed in the Beaux-Arts architectural style often are. While it no longer serves as a convent, you can still see signs of its past vocation if you look closely. The original chapel now houses the student library. 

I love the mix of architectural styles, languages, traditions (religious or otherwise) that shape our city’s historical heritage. Even the questionable parts (think of McGill University and its slave-owning founder) are still part of a collective history we shouldn’t seek to erase but instead acknowledge and atone for. A society’s evolution is marked and shaped by its transitions, what we choose to take with us, what we leave behind, what we opt to give a second life to — what we decide matters. 

While Dawson’s exterior has remained mostly unchanged and a testament to its rich past, the interior reflects the present. It’s been renovated extensively to accommodate decades of young student traffic walking through its doors, speaking all kinds of languages. Dawson’s student body is a true reflection of Montreal. It may now also be the victim of a provincial government that decided to score political points at the expense of its vitality. 

Serious space crunch

For the past 20 years, Dawson has been experiencing major space shortages. Its students squeezed into a campus that’s far too small to accommodate them. Compared to other Quebec CEGEPS, students at Dawson have 30% less space for classes, labs, learning activities, sports, student life, studying, socializing and eating. 

This is space Dawson students are entitled to. Not because they’re special, not because they’re an English institution, but because this is the space all Quebec students are required to have for optimal teaching, based on the Quebec Ministry of Education’s own established norms. Currently, Dawson has a space deficit of over 11,000 square metres (what the Montreal Gazette’s Katherine Wilton wrote is “more than 10 typical office floors”). That’s a major space crunch. This fact isn’t debatable. It was recognized by the ministry years ago and reaffirmed in December 2021, just a few months ago.

Dawson scapegoated 

Knowing all this, Premier Legault’s decision last month to suddenly renege on his promise to fund an expansion was understandably both shocking and frustrating for Dawson’s administration — who spent seven years working on it — and its students. 

If you’re reading this and feel the urge to point out underfunded francophone institutions in the rest of Canada as proof of Dawson deserving a similar fate, I urge you not to. The underfunding of francophone institutions across Canada — while a legitimate and very real issue — has absolutely nothing to do with and is certainly not decided upon by Quebec’s English-speaking community and its institutions. This important distinction is something leaders of Quebec’s francophone CEGEPs and many francophone pundits, who’ve publicly voiced their support for Dawson, understand. 

French-language institutions, in Quebec (and across Canada) should be protected and better funded. You don’t achieve that, however, by discriminating against English-language Quebec institutions and their students (many of them young francophones who chose to attend CEGEP in English) who deserve equal access to quality education, regardless of which institution and which language they’re being educated in.

When Premier Legault cancelled a project that he committed to by explaining that it’s “because Dawson offers instruction in English,” and he would “rather invest in CEGEPs that offer instruction in French,” he was knowingly depriving the institution and its students of what it was owed for the simple reason that its curriculum is in English. There’s a simple word for that: discrimination. 

A very important clarification regarding Dawson’s new pavilion project: Some claim the reason the college needs the funding is because it’s expanding enrolment. This is 100% untrue. The construction of the new pavilion is to better accommodate the current number of students, not to expand its enrolment. 

Based on Dawson’s recognized devis of 7,075 students (a target enrolment set by Quebec’s Ministry of Education, which has remained pretty much the same since the late ‘90s), the college is in a serious space deficit. Students are currently sardined into tiny teaching facilities or sitting in rented out lacklustre spaces never intended for classrooms at the nearby former Forum building. The simulation room used by nursing students is in a closet because there’s no space. Do these (anglophone, francophone, allophone) Quebecers attending Dawson not deserve equitable treatment and the quality of services that all Quebec students deserve, or are they simply being relegated to second-class status because they’re being educated in English? 

Future healthcare workers compromised 

The cancelled pavilion was expected to house seven programs in the health and social service sectors, educating Quebec’s future generation of healthcare workers. The campus would have provided space to students training to be nurses, radiation oncologists, ultrasound technicians, social workers, physiotherapists — all those healthcare skills we need and are now trying to recruit abroad because the pandemic made it abundantly clear that staffing shortages affect the quality of care that Quebecers receive. Dawson graduates work in both francophone and anglophone institutions and serve all Quebecers, not just some of us. A student-run community health clinic, aiming to serve Montreal residents, also had to be cancelled. 

Dawson’s expansion cancellation sends a chilling message to English-language Quebecers. Your institutions, your students, your future contributions, your educational needs don’t matter. They are less important. Promises made to you can easily be rescinded. Seven years of planning are unimportant. Public support for the expansion — even by the premier himself — is not a guarantee of anything. The Education Ministry’s own acknowledgment that Dawson is suffering from a space crunch is meaningless. When elections loom, a minority language’s needs can easily be pushed aside and ignored, promises broken, for the sake of votes. 

Sign the petition

Dawson is fighting back. March 15 is the final day to sign a petition in support of Dawson students. On March 17, a delegation from the CEGEP will head to Quebec City to present it to the National Assembly. “If you support equal rights for students of English-language educational institutions, want Quebec to invest in upgrading the training of our future healthcare workers and would like to see a new community clinic in downtown Montreal, please sign the petition,” says Dawson Student Union President Alexandrah Cardona. “We are also Quebecers.” 

Choosing to prioritize francophone students at the expense of English-speaking students is discriminatory. Dawson and students’ access to educational services of equivalent quality have been sacrificed to appease nationalist voters and shield Legault from criticism from language hardliners who wanted to see Bill 101 extended to CEGEPs. 

As a compromise, an English-language institution that serves all Quebecers was thrown under the bus and denied what it’s owed based on the Education Ministry’s own requirements.

Quebec students deserve better than a government that plays dodgy political games with their educations and futures. ■

To sign the Dawson petition, please visit the Quebec National Assembly website

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.