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Bill 96: Parc Ex educators and parents voice deep concerns 

“Both educators and parents at Barthélemy-Vimont school in Parc Ex believe Bill 96 will create major obstacles not only for children’s education, but also for the parents’ economic and cultural integration, and their confidence in Quebec institutions.”

To understand the true extent of how waves of immigration have marked Montreal and made it the multicultural and multilingual cosmopolitan city that it is today, one only needs to stroll through Parc Extension. In this neighbourhood, Greek bakeries can be found side by side with Muslim mosques, while Haitian and Latin American corner stores sit next to South Asian cricket pitches. You can’t walk a block without hearing 5 of the 40 or so different languages spoken in this borough, a long-standing landing pad for new immigrants and one of the most vibrant and colourful parts of our city. 

If there’s a school that represents Parc Extension’s ethnically diverse reality, École Barthélemy-Vimont, one of the largest elementary schools in the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM), would be it. With approximately 1,000 enrolled students, close to half of them born outside of Quebec, 12 welcome classes (classes d’accueil) and PELO (Programme d’enseignement des langues d’origine) classes taught in Arabic, Tamil and Urdu, it’s an establishment that understands better than most both the joys and the challenges of teaching allophone kids. 

Bill 96’s effects on integration and learning

Parents and educators at Barthélemy-Vimont are deeply worried about the effects of Bill 96 on education and integration in Parc Ex. The bill seeks to enforce that newly arrived families (including refugees) only communicate in French six months after their arrival in Quebec. Some, like Laura Wills, a mother with two children at the school, are worried less about themselves and more about others. 

“I was born and raised here and I’m perfectly bilingual,” Wills tells me. “I’m a middle-class white woman and the privilege that comes with that. This bill won’t affect me, but I’ve been on the parents’ school board committees long enough to know that communicating with the parents is their number one priority and challenge.” 

In an open letter written by school parents and educators and addressed to Simon Jolin-Barrette, the Quebec minister responsible for the French language, and their local MNA Andrés Fontacella, Wills explains, “Our school is comprised of 90% immigrants, most of them from South Asia. Everything is translated, often into six or seven languages. It would simply be impossible for our school to operate under Bill 96. Parents would not know when pedagogical days take place, how to pay school fees, why their child needs a remedial teacher for any learning difficulties, nor any of the constantly changing regulations regarding COVID-19.” 

Knowing the sociolinguistic stats of the school and the percentage of students born outside of Quebec, Wills is concerned that limiting communication will affect their learning, their integration and their sense of belonging. 

“Over the past two years, the pressure on our school has been brutal: understaffed, underfunded and on the frontlines of a health and social crisis,” she says. “We’ve weathered this crisis admirably, and, thanks to clear and constant communication with the community, we had lower case rates and higher vaccination rates, higher than many comparable schools. Our school functions as a place of integration, for parents as much as for children.” 

Beginnings are brutally hard

No one knows better what it’s like to be thrust into a new, confusing world with few guidelines than new immigrants. Those grateful for the support they first received rush to give back in return. Komal Malhotra is a refugee claimant from India who first arrived here with her husband and their son in 2018. She remembers how difficult it was at the beginning. 

“You don’t understand the signs, you can’t navigate the tiniest little things, you can’t speak the common language,” she says. “People made it easier for us by speaking with us in our mother tongue, by helping us with the paperwork, just like I’m doing now as a volunteer translator at my son’s school.” 

As refugee claimants, Malhotra and her husband Gaurav were granted work visas but were not entitled to free French lessons. “I had to pay to take French classes, I paid for my books,” she says. “I wanted to learn despite the costs. We know that we live in a French province, we know French is the common language here, and that we obviously need to learn to speak it. There’s no need for a bill that marginalizes people.” 

She points out that even those with access to free French lessons, who are paid a stipend to learn the language, must contend with the fact that it barely covers their living expenses. “If someone is paid $1,200 a month to learn French and rents in Parc Ex hover around $1,400, how are they expected to pay for groceries, for clothing, for essentials?” 

Malhotra is convinced the government doesn’t understand how negatively this bill will affect people’s lives. 

“As a volunteer translator at my son’s school, my main goal is to make people feel comfortable and ease them into their new community. If a teacher needs to send a message to the parents, we translate it for them. If they can’t read well, we make an audio message for them to listen to. The key goal is to ensure they know what is happening with their kids.”

Unrealistic expectations punish the vulnerable 

Ecole Barthelemy Vimont Parc Ex Extension Bill 96
Parents and educators at Barthelemy-Vimont school in Parc Ex react to the impending consequences of Bill 96.

“It takes years to learn a language,” her husband adds. “Six months is unrealistic and impossible. My priority was to take care of my family, no one else is helping me, so I started working as soon as I could. Now, four years later, I feel like we’re finally more stable, I know my surroundings, and I’ve started taking night classes. It was impossible for me to take full-time classes from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. How would we have survived?” 

Gaurav doesn’t understand the punitive nature of Bill 96. He says those who choose Quebec know they need to eventually learn French. But resources and subsidies are often limited and the difficulties are many. He believes positive reinforcement works best. 

“If a restaurant wants me to eat their food, they need to make the food better so eating there comes naturally to me,” he says. “The government needs to make the acquisition of French easier, give us time and access, make it a natural progression.” 

He says he’s worried about what kind of message legislation like this sends to newcomers and everyone whose mother tongue is not French. “They keep saying the priority must be to those who speak French. When we started volunteering at the school, we never asked what maternal language people spoke, we just tried to help them as best as we could.”

Komal tells me they’re picking up French, but as adults it takes time. Her son, on the other hand, is already speaking it. “His teachers are very happy with him.” 

Bill 96 would create a ‘cooling effect’

Rachel Shugart was born in Pakistan and emigrated to Quebec 12 years ago. She didn’t speak a word of French when she first arrived but was able to jump right into intensive full-time classes because her husband was working. Even after all these years here and working in French, the mother of two says she still has difficulty finding the right words — especially if she’s stressed. As an ESL teacher at a francophone school teaching English as a second language she’s seen how vulnerable and anxiety-inducing learning another language can be for her students, how it can make them feel stupid and self-conscious. 

“My francisation experience was wonderful,” she says. “The program was amazing, and the teachers were great. But the idea that it would take less than two to three years to become moderately capable to function as a citizen displays a complete lack of comprehension of the learning process.” 

Shugart worries Bill 96 would create a ‘cooling effect’ where people would be apprehensive about requesting to be spoken to in another language, or a teacher fearing repercussions would shy away from making any reasonable accommodation. 

“It would truly impact every level of our school life and possibly destroy the fabric of our community here,” says Shugart. “Our translation services are lacking, and we can’t even keep up. We don’t have the capacity to hire more translators, so we rely on volunteers. If we’re not allowed to speak with parents in English, we’re going to have to find French translators who can speak to them in their language. The school is legally required to make sure parents understand what’s happening with their child and get their approval on any actions undertaken. So now the burden falls on the school to find these interpreters.” 

Shugart insists every newcomer she meets wants to learn French. “We need to make francisation more accessible, more available,” she says. “People need more access, and they need more time. The government could have thrown all this money they’re throwing into Bill 96 into introducing more people to the French culture, making them feel part of something. There are so many positive entry points into another language. But in order to enter a new world, you need to ask those first questions in English or whatever language you’re most comfortable in.” 

High expectations, limited resources

Many of the parents I spoke with mentioned Ghislaine Paiement, a community intervention worker at the school who’s taken the extra step of learning Hindi to better communicate with the students’ parents. In the open letter, Paiement explains that in her daily experience she sees people who not only aren’t resistant to learning French, but who want to honour the commitment they made, while the conditions to do so are barely provided. She says imposing a mode of communication they do not understand only adds to immigrants’ immense challenges. 

“A mother told me that she has to get up at 4 a.m. to do her chores so that she has time to take her French lessons, which causes her a lot of anxiety,” Paiement writes in the letter. “Two fathers cried in front of me because they could not provide for the needs of their families, because they were taking French lessons instead of working. Bill 96 does not meet a need but impedes successful integration, by imposing conditions that are impossible to meet and taking no account of reality.”

Both educators and parents at Barthélemy-Vimont believe Bill 96 will create major obstacles not only for their children’s education, but also for the parents’ economic and cultural integration, and their confidence in Quebec institutions.

Disappointment with their local MNA 

The parents I spoke with repeatedly expressed disappointment with their local MNA for Laurier-Dorion, Andrés Fontecilla, whose party, Québec Solidaire, has announced they will support Bill 96 despite their many objections to it. 

“Even if it includes several important advances for French in Quebec, Bill 96 is not perfect and we’ve made several attempts to improve it,” Fontecilla told me in an email statement. “We have proposed extending the period for newcomers and refugees from six months to three years before having to communicate only in French with the government, and we have proposed improving interpreter services. Unfortunately, the government refused.

“The CAQ must understand that it is not by adopting a divisive discourse that it will bring people together around our common language. The minister is responsible for meeting with concerned communities and reassuring them about the impacts of his bill, particularly in the areas of education, health and social services. For example, will schools be prohibited from communicating with parents in a language other than French? Québec Solidaire will continue to hound the CAQ government to ensure that all the necessary support and accompaniment will be given to citizens and institutions in the implementation of the new law.”

In the meantime, the worry remains — and political statements have done little to assuage it. 

The most vulnerable penalized

Wills tells me she doesn’t understand how Bill 96 preventing the school from communicating with parents in a language other than French will protect and promote French. She’s worried about parents not understanding the school newsletter inviting them to participate in school activities or parents unable to read school emails. 

“With Bill 96, during parent-teacher conferences, there would be no legal means for a teacher to explain to a student’s mother that their child is doing well or that they need to practise their multiplications,” she says. 

“Will creating more barriers, stress and isolation for parents contribute to strengthening French? Will it contribute to strengthening the education of children in French? Will they be more likely to graduate, in a neighbourhood that already has a high dropout rate? Will it make them more likely to succeed in CEGEP and university in French? Because if the answer is no, the purpose of Bill 96 seems to be above all to punish and discourage people who are already in a position of vulnerability.” ■

For more on Bill 96, please click here.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.