Quebec tuition hike

Quebec university tuition fee hike and CAQ rhetoric ‘a slap in the face’

We spoke with several Montrealers — and one Ottawa parent whose daughter had considered studying here — about their frustration, disappointment and anger over the Quebec government’s decision to double tuition for out-of-province university students.

The recent decision by the Quebec government to double tuition rates for out-of-province students attending Quebec universities — in an attempt, says the CAQ, to rectify inequities between the French and English university network and protect the French language — has shaken English-language universities to their core. The news has been met with concern and confusion as Quebecers assess the potential financial fallout and the message it sends non-francophones in and outside the province.

While few would disagree with efforts to redress financial inequities, the CAQ has been very vocal about how it views out-of-province students who, it says, primarily study in English and as a result “anglicize” Quebec. Premier Legault has gone as far as labelling these students as a “threat” to the survival of the French language. 

The most frustrating aspect of such rhetoric is how it minimizes or completely erases the immense contributions of not only English-language institutions in Quebec but the thousands upon thousands of Quebecers who have come here to study, stayed and built lives here. Even those who leave continue to act as lifelong ambassadors for our province, but that, too, appears to be of no value to this government. The CAQ seems equally uninterested in how this move impacts francophones in the rest of Canada who are also impacted by exorbitant tuition hikes. 

‘I spoke zero French when I moved here.’

Old Montreal
Old Montreal

Sean Arani is a successful entrepreneur who owns a Montreal-based manufacturing company that provides energy-efficient LED lighting products for residential, commercial and industrial projects across Canada.

Originally from Iran, Arani is a first-generation immigrant who came to Canada in 2008 at the age of 21. After completing a Bachelors and a Master’s in engineering in the U.K., Arani decided to attend McGill’s MBA program. 

“It was the only university I applied to,” he says. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I wanted to stay in Montreal because I love the culture here — it’s more European.” 

Arani, who’s been here for over 15 years now, is deeply concerned by the damage the government’s recent decision will do to Quebec’s English institutions. He also doesn’t agree that those who choose to study in English endanger French. 

“I spoke zero French when I moved here,” he says. “I speak it perfectly now. I learned it taking part-time classes. People will learn a language when they are incentivized, and moving to Montreal as a whole, I looked at learning French not as an obstacle, but as an asset.” 

Arani says Quebec needs to do a better job of branding French to help people who move here understand that it’s an asset, not something that’s forced on you. “French is an important language,” he says, “and in the world of business, being able to communicate in someone’s language is a plus.”

Anglos as ambassadors for Quebec culture

Pat Donnelly says the CAQ’s comments about English-speakers being a threat to the French language felt like a “slap in the face.” 

“I came to Quebec in 1975 because I was a francophile,” she says. “I loved the French culture and wanted to learn the language. I’ve been here for 50 years.”

Donnelly was the Montreal Gazette’s theatre (and overall culture) critic for 31 years, where, she says, she was privileged to witness one of the most exciting periods in Quebec English and French theatre history — and to play a role in promoting it. 

The Saskatchewan-born journalist was front and centre in the audience for many important Quebec productions when Robert Lepage was first coming up and was the first critic to ever write in English about the Cirque du Soleil. Her writing contributed to the Quebec institution finding a fanbase outside of the French market and soon conquering the world. 

“In my 31 years as a theatre critic,” she says, “I recorded and transcribed thousands of hours of interviews with French-language Quebec artists and wrote about them in a language that the rest of North America understood. My English articles were in their press kits when Quebec artists toured around the country or around the world. I actively promoted Quebec culture throughout my career.”

Like so many Canadians, Donnelly moved to Montreal, studied at an English institution, fell in love with the city and the culture, and stayed. She resents this deliberate erasure of the contributions of those like her, who are English speakers but who also speak French and love Quebec culture. And that love, she says, is passed down. 

“My daughter went to French school,” Donnelly says. “She now lives in Vancouver, but her children attend French school because she wanted them to have the opportunity that she had to be bilingual.”

‘This false dichotomy is not true.’

Harley Finkelstein Shopify Montreal

“The reason I’m here right now is because of McGill,” Harley Finkelstein tells me. “My parents couldn’t afford U.S. tuition. McGill is a gateway drug to Montreal; you get a taste of the city, and when you leave, you realize that there’s nothing like it.” 

The president of Shopify, Canada’s leading one-stop-e-commerce company — powering millions of businesses in 175 countries, moved his family back to Montreal just a few months ago. “We wouldn’t be here right now if not for me studying here,” he repeats. “I built a big company here, a life here. Shopify is the largest technology company in the country and I’m leading that company from Montreal.” 

Finkelstein, like so many of the city’s successful entrepreneurs, are big brand ambassadors for Montreal — and by extension, Quebec. I spoke with him back in July when he explained why he believes Montreal has the potential to become the most important cultural hub in North America. 

The current CAQ decision to exorbitantly increase tuition fees has left him concerned about its potential to dissuade the best and brightest from coming here. He says it’s an advantage we had over other academic powerhouses that we’re now removing at a critical time for our economy. 

Finkelstein doesn’t buy the CAQ’s assertion that French is threatened by those who come here to study. 

“It’s not true,” he says. “I didn’t speak any French when I came here for McGill. I went to school in South Florida. But when you move here, you realize that if you want to be successful and have a full life in Quebec, it behooves you to learn to speak French. It’s such a big part of the city and people want to be part of this incredible society.”

Finkelstein believes the issue is being presented as a false dichotomy. “Either you speak French,” he says, “or you don’t like the French culture. It’s not true. As an anglophone who just moved here seven weeks ago, my wife and I are speaking more French than ever.”

‘There’s a limit to what you’re willing to pay.’

University of Ottawa

Lost in the cacophony of protests from Quebec’s English-speaking community is the realization that this myopic decision has also thrown French-speaking families from the rest of Canada who had plans for their children to study at Quebec’s institutions under the bus. Approximately 20% of Canadian students coming to Quebec to study are francophones. 

Mathieu Boutin is a franco-Ontarian whose fully bilingual daughter was looking at three or four French or English universities in Montreal. “UQAM, UdeM, McGill were all possibilities for her,” says Boutin. 

Things have now changed. 

“The bottom line is the money,” he says. “My oldest is at uOttawa and we pay Ottawa tuition, which hovers around $6,000. Franco-Ontarians get a $1,000 rebate every year if they study in French (including an admission scholarship of $1,500 if they have an 80% average) at uOttawa. So, it’s reasonable tuition, plus a rebate. But $17,000 for a Quebec university? There’s a limit to what you’re willing to pay.”

The irony, says Boutin, is that his daughter is very proud of her French heritage and would have made a great addition to Quebec if she had studied here and potentially stayed. 

“She was in the streets protesting when the Ford government cut funding to our (French) schools,” he says. “She wasn’t necessarily looking at McGill as an opportunity to study in English, but as an opportunity to study in Montreal. She never looked at it as a French-English thing.”

Boutin says that the CAQ’s announcement comes just as his daughter and her friends are discussing where they’ll go to university. “This is the time institutions make their pitches at high schools,” he says. “Applications are slated to close in January, and I hear many of them saying, ‘Tuition has doubled in Quebec so I don’t think I can afford it now.’ It’s created chaos and possibly limited my daughters’ choices at a time when she’s making those decisions.”

I ask Boutin how it feels to know that francophone students from France or Belgium are exempt from higher tuition fees, while francophone students from the rest of Canada, who have parents paying into federal taxes that also substantially support Quebec’s educational institutions, will be dinged a hefty Non-Quebecer Tax. 

“It’s frustrating to say it politely,” he says. “Somebody born in France has that rebate. Flying the franco-Ontarian flag over the Quebec National Assembly, inviting the franco-Ontarians at Saint-Jean-Baptiste parades, it’s all for the show. Ultimately, support for minorities comes from real actions and now there are none. It makes me emotional because it’s personal to me.”

Boutin believes the government is taking a gamble, betting that people will still come. If there’s a decrease in attendance, he thinks the government believes it will make up the lost income with tuition increases. “But I don’t think they’ll win this bet,” he says. “Because somebody from Toronto planning to come to Quebec will just go elsewhere now.” 

‘Our ability to recruit talent is being undermined.’

Franco-Ontarian flag

Dr. Sarah Dorner is one of many franco-Ontarians who moved to Quebec to study and never went back home. She’s worried this decision will undermine Quebec institutions’ ability to recruit more broadly around the world. As an associate professor of civil, geological and mining engineering at Polytechnique and the Canada Research Chair in source water protection from 2007–2019, Dorner leads projects on green infrastructure for stormwater control and climate change adaptation. 

Dorner believes Quebec hasn’t done enough to rectify any inequities between the French and English-language universities. “There is an imbalance that needs to be corrected,” she says, “but we haven’t done enough to correct it ourselves. We haven’t tapped into the French and French-immersion students in Ontario.”

She believes significantly higher tuition fees will prevent out-of-province students from attending Quebec universities. “When I made my decision,” she says, “cost was a big factor because my studies were largely self-funded. Higher tuition costs will definitely affect admissions, especially when there are alternatives. If you look at available programs, you’ll be able to find much better deals elsewhere, with programs that have just as much prestige.”

Montreal as a city, she says, is a big draw for many students. “It’s not just an academic program that attracts students to a university, but also where it’s located. You also want this to be about students choosing where they want to go as opposed to filling up seats that some bureaucrat made up a list for.”

Arani agrees. The diversity that Montreal and its institutions attract is a major selling point. “Every time you do an MBA, people say that part of it is what you learn, but most of it is the network that you make,” he says. “The people that I studied with were from all over the world and the rest of Canada. It gave me the opportunity to learn from them and their cultures, it helped with expanding my business and my relationships.”

Dorner sees higher fees as a serious deterrent for many students who struggle financially. “We have to think of the students who are coming here to fulfil a dream,” she says. “These are real people with real dreams and aspirations. The government is taking this money from people who don’t have a lot as a general rule; it’s doing this on the backs of students. Tuition increases will put our universities out of reach for some.”

A recent analysis of the issue by higher-education strategist Alex Usher revealed that more Quebec students attend Ontario universities than Ontarians attend Quebec institutions. 

“Why is that the case?” asks Dorner.

“We haven’t done our homework when it comes to recruiting more. Why aren’t we bringing in as many of these students from across Canada and around the world the way English universities do?”

She wonders if the Quebec government’s insistence on always seeing outsiders as a “threat” leads to fewer efforts to recruit from this talent pool.

Dorner points to Ontario’s strong primary and secondary education in French. “Some students drop out of French immersion because they don’t see the point,” she says, “but what if they were offered incentives to come study here? I feel that, to some extent, we haven’t done enough ourselves to really open up these universities to out-of-province and international students. We don’t go on missions to ‘sell’ ourselves.” 

The lack of French post-secondary education institutions in Ontario, Dorner says, should motivate Quebec to consider Ontario as a pipeline for Quebec’s French universities. 

“But we don’t,” she says. “Not only are we disconnecting a potential pipeline for French education, but we’re seeing it as a threat to Quebec society, when in fact it could be the exact opposite if we had this vision for what education could really be.”

Dorner believes the CAQ’s rhetoric regarding “outsiders” or non-francophones is highly counter-productive and divisive. 

“Those comments were said with such disdain and contempt,” she says. “It’s very hurtful when you’re referred to as a threat. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, we’d like it if you spoke French more,’ they’re actually using the word ‘threat.’ No one wants to be described in that way. It’s a horrible way to view fellow citizens.”

Redirecting and reassessing 

mcgill university quebec university cegep masks distancing
McGill University

In reaction to the news and in anticipation of a major hit to its finances, McGill University has opted to suspend a five-year, $50-million program aimed at teaching French to its students and faculty. 

English-language alumni are reacting, too. Arani, who doesn’t have children but says he loves education as a cause to contribute towards, has donated to French CEGEPs in the past and was planning to do the same this year. The Montreal businessman has now decided to redirect his donation to McGill.

“It’s not about the fact that McGill is an English university,” he says, “but about the fact that it’s an outstanding university and it’s now going to be affected because of certain policies. To me, it was never a question of whether it’s a French or English institution. In an ideal world, it would never be about the language.”

Arani plans to add a stipulation with his donation. He wants the money to specifically be used to sponsor out-of-province students so it can be more affordable for them to study in Quebec. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.