MONTREAL -- Quebec kids were at the heart of a heated exchange Thursday over language laws -- specifically, English-speaking kids and whether they're really leaving school with functional French.

"English schools are capable of preparing students to live in French, to integrate into French-speaking society," argued Russell Copeman, director of Quebec's English school board association (QESBA) as he testified about proposed language law Bill 96.

That's not what the head of the province's association of colleges says, fired back Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette.

"M. Tremblay said that English CEGEP students aren’t functional in French," he said.

The man he was referring to, Bernard Tremblay, is the president of the Federation of CEGEPs.

The province's English-language CEGEPs, high schools and elementary schools haven't been doing a good enough job of preparing their students to live and work in French, Jolin-Barrette insisted.

That's one reason it's important for the province now to crack down on education with Bill 96, he added. 

The proposed legislation is meant to update Bill 101, Quebec's major language law passed in the 1970s.

Some of the new law's most controversial measures involve English-speakers' education rights, particularly the proposal to create a strict cap on spots in English-language CEGEPS.

The topic has dominated the hearings so far. Testimony on Wednesday included an architect of the original Bill 101, Guy Rocher, saying the government of that era had made a "mistake" on CEGEPs.

It should have required immigrants and allophones to attend them in French, rather than having a choice, Rocher said.

Thursday, Copeman was asked to answer for English-speakers' lack of fluency in French after going through the English education system, taking French immersion or French as a second language.

He said he doesn't believe the French deficiencies are serious.

"The government of Quebec recognizes that those students who get a diploma from secondary school in Quebec have a good knowledge of French," he said.

His three children, who went through school at the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), have "not flawless," but still excellent French, he said. 

"That is very good," answered Jolin-Barrette, "but fundamentally, there is an issue."

He asked for Copeman's thoughts on a political dust-up earlier this month, when the EMSB included a clause denying the existence of Quebec's nationhood in a motion opposing Bill 96.

The incident inspired Quebec Premier François Legault to call the EMSB a "radical group" and Montreal mayoral candidate Denis Coderre to drop the chair of the EMSB, Joe Ortona, from his slate of candidates in the upcoming election.

Ortona and the EMSB immediately acknowledged that including the clause was a mistake and retracted it.

On Thursday, Jolin-Barrette said the incident was "deplorable" and said he was "curious" to know Copeman's opinion.

"I think the same as [Ortona]," Copeman said. "It was ill-advised." 

He said the clause was removed, and "for me, that’s the end of the story."


LISTEN ON CJAD RADIO 800: The Bill 96 hearings continued this week, and it was the Anglo schools that got to have their say. Russell Copeman, executive director of The Quebec English School Boards Association weighs in