Quebec language reform: Francophones who attended English CEGEPs say they deserve the right to choose
MONTREAL -- Camille Lévesque is perhaps a rarity; she's a perfectly bilingual Quebecer.
She spent her early years in Toronto due to her father's work, but attended a French elementary school. When the family moved back to Quebec in 2007, Lévesque said there was no question that she would be attending a French-language high school.
"My parents were very adamant about speaking French every day," she said. "But ultimately, when it came to picking a CEGEP, Dawson had a strong science program."
Lévesque attended Dawson College from 2012 to 2014, studying health sciences.
"The science world is overwhelmingly anglophone and I had plans to go to an English university, so I thought it would be an easier transition to start with English CEGEP," she told CTV News.
"In science, there is a lot of terminology that's very different in English and French."
However, future generations of francophones may soon see their chances at attending higher education in English cut by the current Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government.
The news is dismaying to Juliette Tremblay, a once-unilingual francophone who says she chose to attend English CEGEP because she aspires towards a career without limitations.
"It's not a disadvantage to speak English and French," she said, adding she attended Champlain College. "It's really something that is good for Quebec, that's good for promoting Quebec around the world, if almost everybody speaks both languages."
FREEZING CEGEP ADMISSIONS
Thursday, Simon Jolin-Barrette, the province's minister responsible for the French language, tabled Bill 96, 'An Act Respecting French, the Official and Common Language of Quebec.'
It's the most recent proposal to reform the province's controversial Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, after recent studies revealed use of the French language was in decline in Quebec.
The government notes over the last 25 years, the number of students in French CEGEPs has been in sharp decline, while English CEGEPs have enjoyed a steady increase.
"Between 1995 and 2019, the proportion of students in the French-language CEGEP system as a whole fell from 83.3 per cent to 81.6 per cent," the bill states.
"On the Island of Montreal, in 2019-2020, nearly half of the students registered in a pre-university program were studying in the English-language network."
The CAQ is proposing that the proportion of students attending school in English be frozen at 17.5 per cent for the 2019-2020 school year. English CEGEPs will thus only be allowed to admit an equal to or lower percentage of students in the future.
When total enrolment increases from the previous year, it would limit the potential for growth in the English-language system to a maximum of 8.7 per cent -- that means that if enrolment increases by 10,000 over the previous year, English-language CEGEPs would be limited to a maximum of 870.
The government says it also wants all students to pass a French-language test in order to receive their diplomas.
"Mastery of French is a skill of primary importance for full participation in Quebec society," the bill states.
"It is therefore proposed that a single standard test in French...be administered to all students at the end of their studies, regardless of the linguistic identity of the institution at which they are studying."
Those who attended elementary or secondary school in English and are enrolled in an English CEGEP will be exempt.
THERE MUST BE A BETTER WAY
Lévesque says she would have been upset if the government had purposely stopped her from choosing a CEGEP in the language of her choice simply because of her mother tongue.
"When you're at that point of entering CEGEP, you're almost an adult. You're making decisions about your career, your future," she pointed out.
"It's not up to the government to tell you, 'no, you happen to speak French, so you can't go there.'"
Lévesque said she understands why the government wants to preserve the French language, but stated there must be a better way to do it.
"Why not make francophone CEGEPs more attractive to people?" she asked. "They're going about it the wrong way."
Tremblay believes it doesn't make sense to push English CEGEPs down in order to promote attendance in French schools.
"If you want to learn English and it's a good opportunity for you, why do we have to be limited?" she asked. "Eventually, it's going to impact our work opportunities."
She is currently completing her Master's Degree in Criminology at Université de Montréal.
As for Lévesque, she now lives in Ottawa, working with the federal government.
"I was never that involved in some francophone culture, but I don't think going to an English school for two years is what changed that," she said. "It's two years of your life. It was the best decision."
TIGHTENING QUEBEC'S LANGUAGE LAWS
Quebec Premier François Legault has already stated that his government plans to invoke the notwithstanding clause, which can override some sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to push the reform through.
"We find it very curious that the government seems to be trying to use the notwithstanding clause to override fundamental human rights," said Marlene Jennings, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN).
"If the government uses the notwithstanding clause to override fundamental human rights that are found in our Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they are going to face backlash, not just in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, but on the international scene as well."
She pointed out Quebec's English-speaking minority is often pinpointed as being defiant, but it's simply not true.
"I think that having a discussion about how to go about promoting and protecting the French language is healthy," Jennings insisted. "QCGN and English-speaking minority communities have been strong defenders of the need to promote and protect the French language."
Nevertheless, Legault has said, very bluntly, that he plans to use the legal tool "to protect our collective rights."
There’s a lot that protects the English speaking community, though, including access to English CEGEPs, says CAQ MNA Christopher Skeete, who is the province’s point man for the Anglophone community.
“I get emails every day from parents saying my daughter has an 80 per cent average, can’t get into Dawson or Vanier in social science,” he said.
Skeete said the province is guaranteeing English-speaking Quebecers will always have access to their institutions.
“That portion of the constitution, according to our legal opinions, tells us that we’re allowed to assert that ourselves because it belongs to us,” he said.