notwithstanding clause Quebec Bill 96 Quebecers

Bill 96: Playing politics with the futures of young Quebecers is just wrong

An amendment to the bill, requiring English CEGEP students to pass three courses in French, is a laudable, necessary move. But it has prompted panic for a number of good reasons.

A Bill 96 amendment requiring that students in English CEGEPs pass three regular courses in French in order to graduate is a laudable and, frankly, necessary move. Ensuring that Quebec anglophones and allophones can function adequately in French and are prepared for Quebec’s predominantly francophone workforce should not only be required, but be a natural and unavoidable result of their schooling in this province.

That this amendment has prompted such panic and concern among some of Quebec’s anglophones and allophones speaks primarily to three things: the lacklustre quality of French-language teaching in Quebec schools, the distrust this government inspires when it comes to minority rights and the fact that politicians continue to weaponize and undermine language acquisition by presenting it as a zero-sum game, to no one’s benefit. Except, perhaps, politicians.  

To summarize: the initiative itself isn’t the problem. How it’s being implemented is.

I don’t know of a single anglophone or allophone Quebecer who’s against their children mastering French. Neither do I know of a single francophone Quebecer who isn’t in favour of their children being proficient in English. I’m talking about average Quebecers devoid of agendas, the ones working, paying taxes and raising their kids, trying to ensure they have as many opportunities and advantages as they can offer them. 

Put aside language politics and everyone with working brain cells will quickly agree that knowing more is always better than knowing less. Bilingualism drastically improves people’s career and salary prospects, expands perspectives and opens doors to working across the country and around the world. There shouldn’t be anything controversial or worth debating about this.

Attempting, however, to rush through a major amendment with no input from the linguistic communities affected or the educators entrusted with the changes, just so the CAQ can use it for brownie points in an election year, is, to put it plainly, wrong. 

What’s the end goal? 

If the goal is to truly ensure French is adequately taught in Quebec’s English system and that all Quebecers regardless of language finish school proficient in French, and if we know that 25% of current students will have difficulties that may cause them to either fail to graduate or severely affect their R-Scores and their chances of accessing the university programs they aspire to, do we then go ahead and implement this amendment with no regard for their futures, scapegoating them, or do we delay in an effort to ensure the best possible results? 

To those arguing that concerns raised by the English-speaking community prove they don’t speak French, no, it categorically doesn’t. Functional bilingualism requires more than carrying a conversation and written French is tough. Taking the French ministry exam is not the same as taking a class in anatomy or chemistry in your second or third language. Those added obstacles can quickly make the difference between getting an A and a C. Some pundits I see now openly rejoicing at a report showing some anglophone and allophone students would fail if required to take three core classes in French would most likely flunk themselves if challenged to take CEGEP-level literature or history in English. So, instead of treating young kids as enemies to be mocked or examples to be made fun of, perhaps we should consider that this is a conundrum for all Quebecers to solve. Because, if these stats are indeed accurate, we have a problem. And these young students caught in the crosshairs shouldn’t have to pay the price.

French-language teaching inadequate 

If young allophone and anglophone Quebecers with years of French-immersion classes are in danger of failing three CEGEP courses given in French, what does that say about the quality of French-language teaching offered in Quebec? And if the answer is “Nothing good,” then why are we trying to cure the symptom instead of the disease — instead of backtracking and getting to the root of the problem? Forcing French courses on CEGEP students unable to properly follow French curriculum as a way of improving their French integration is like forcing an untrained driver behind the wheel of a speeding car in the fast lane hoping they quickly pick up some driving skills. They’re going to crash. And even if they don’t, they probably won’t like driving anymore. 

If the CAQ does indeed care about Quebec students graduating, as it insists it does, it needs to listen to educators sounding the alarm. Last year, the government acknowledged it needed to do more to improve university access and success because Quebec’s CEGEP and university graduation rates have stagnated. Only 29% of Quebec adults had a university degree in 2019. Quebec has the lowest high school graduation rate (64%) in the country and the highest functional illiteracy (34.4%) rates. So, while it might be shocking to some that a small percentage of anglophone and allophone kids may have failed to master French adequately, it should be equally shocking, if not more so, that an exceedingly high number of francophones have, too. Add to the current status quo severe teacher shortages, brought upon by bad working conditions and non-competitive salaries (one Quebec teacher out of five quits in the first five years) exacerbated by a wave of recent retirements, and we don’t exactly have a solid system in place to accommodate what one CEGEP director general referred to as “unmanageable and ill-advised policies.”

Too many unanswered questions

Without any prior consultation from the Higher Education Ministry, or educators and CEGEP administrators explaining the challenges and limitations of such a decision, the CAQ’s rushed amendment is destined to create more problems than it purports to solve. 

Who will be teaching these courses? Will English CEGEPs be forced to add to their teaching staff? If so, with what budget? Will English teachers unable to teach in French be sidelined or lose their jobs? How will students be assessed on these three mandatory classes? On how well they know their subject matter or on how well they speak and write French? As these young adults focus on their chosen fields with an eye on university admission, will these courses specialize in their area of study? Will healthcare students be taking courses focusing on French medical terminology, something of concrete value, or will they be randomly selected courses taught by poorly prepared teachers burdened at the last minute with a requirement decided upon by people who won’t have to bear any of the administrative headaches or consequences? How many students with learning disabilities will fall through the cracks? 

Amendment should be delayed

I fully support mandating three French-language courses in CEGEP. Better French-language acquisition is to their benefit. But it’s utter folly to try and implement something this complex in the coming school year. Doing so without a grace period that would allow teachers, administrators, students and parents to get all their ducks in a row will equate to throwing young Quebecers under the bus and compromising the futures of students unlucky enough to now find themselves falling through the cracks until it’s all figured out. It’s unfair to them.

The acquisition of a language should be a gift, an asset, a window into new opportunities and connections, not a weapon to be brandished or a penalty to be imposed. 

Instead of ensuring Quebec kids emerge formidably bilingual and ready for a world that not only requires multilingualism but rewards it handsomely, we are instead playing political chess with their futures. It’s unforgivable. 

Constant restrictions lower the bar and limit success

By encouraging the creation of elite groups that will benefit from private schools to access coveted CEGEP and university spots, the average Quebecer without the means will remain limited. French-language defenders are right that anglophone and allophone Quebecers deserve a real chance to succeed in Quebec’s workforce. But so do francophones. And whether some people like it or not, English remains a requirement in business, tech, advanced medical and scientific research globally. 

A few hours of English in school or some conversational English picked up by watching TV isn’t going to prepare francophones to compete in a global job market. Bilingual francophones who work in these fields will be the first to corroborate this. It’s, after all, the number one reason why English CEGEPS remain so popular with francophones and allophones educated in French. Considering bilingualism rates among francophones are lower than among anglophones and allophones, why aren’t we also improving francophone students’ career prospects by encouraging English-language acquisition in French CEGEPs and enforcing three English mandatory core classes? Why aren’t we raising the bar for all students?

If one removes politics or emotions from language debates, you’ll find few Quebecers opposed to improving their second or third language skills. But instead of working together to ensure a smarter, more educated, more competitive Quebec workforce with Quebecers able to take on the world, we’ve allowed a small percentage of people with political or ideological agendas to always dictate the conversation. Young Quebecers are paying the price. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.