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Quebec says education ministry presentation for parents could have been in English after all

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In the latest example of the confusion surrounding Quebec's new language law, the education ministry has confirmed that a presentation delivered only in French to English-speaking parents last week could have been done in English after all.

It's a major development in the case that has drawn lots of reaction from the interim leader of the Liberal Party at the national assembly as well as upset parents who were seeking information about programs for their special needs children who attend English schools.

The parents, whose children have intellectual disabilities and cognitive difficulties, were angered that the officials on the Zoom videoconference said they could only explain the programs in French due to the language law. One parent, whose 14-year-old son has autism, told CTV News that the way she was treated was "discriminatory."

However, on Wednesday evening, the Ministry of Education (MEQ) said in an email to CTV News that the French language charter, which was revamped under Bill 96, allows for certain exceptions for administration officials to use a language other than French.

"In this case, the presentation could indeed have been made in English, and the Ministry will ensure that the circumstances permitting the use of another language are specified," wrote spokesperson Bryan St-Louis.

"In order to clarify practices, the future MEQ directive currently in preparation will clarify the conditions and circumstances allowing staff members to use languages other than the official language in this type of situation."

'Rules were misunderstood,' education minister says

During the session for parents, a special education coordinator told the roughly 65 parents that, "I would like to do it in English, but the law will not allow me to. We were able to translate the slides but I don't recall being told that we could verbalize it in English. It doesn't bring me pleasure to do this but we aren't allowed to give the presentation in English."

The province had previously said that, in this case, the exception that was permitted under the law was the English-language slides of the presentation. The question and answer portion of the virtual session was also held in English.

On Thursday, Quebec Education Minister Bernard Drainville admitted "the rules were misunderstood."

"There was a misunderstanding of the rules. Now, I'm making sure that the rules are better understood and therefore it should be made clear in the circumstances that occurred there was a possibility to have a presentation in English — and there should have been one," he told reporters in Quebec City.

Drainville said it would be "a good idea" to offer the presentation again to the anglophone parents.

The minister was also asked how he can expect the public to understand Bill 96 "when your own bureaucrats don't understand what the law requires."

"Look," he responded, "explaining, understanding, clarifying — this is what we're doing."

Earlier this week, Marc Tanguay, the interim leader of the Official Opposition at the national assembly, called into question the provincial government's interpretation of its own language law, which limits the use of English in certain settings.

The officials on the Zoom call should have presented in English, he said, because they were providing "key information" to parents about the wellbeing of their kids that "should be understandable."

Sara Hossaini is a mother of teen boy who has autism. (CTV News)

Sara Hossaini, who attended the session, said in an interview that she had a hard time understanding the French portion of the meeting because the special needs coordinators with the ministry were explaining complex terms in French only.

Reached again by CTV News on Thursday, she said, "The use of language is for communicating and for understanding each other. If they use language to stop communication and building bridges and helping out each other and supporting each other, it's strange. It's a strange use of language."

'Too bad it had to happen this way'

Katherine Korakakis, the president of the Quebec English Parents' Committee Association, helped organized the Zoom session over several months and said she was assured during that time that the meeting for parents would be completely in English.

On Wednesday, she said she was happy to finally get clarity on what is and isn't allowed under the law, but said it speaks to the overall confusion Bill 96 has created for the English-speaking community since it was introduced.

"It's too bad it had to happen this way. It's too bad that an event like this had to happen for us to get clarification," she said in an interview.

"Things should have been clear when the law was put forth. There should have been clear directives. So we're not there. And it's unfortunate that this had to blow up the way it did for us to move forward in a way that we need it to move forward so we can understand what we're doing."

Korakakis said she hopes to organize a new session for anglophone parents in the future "because it's important information."

Eric Maldoff, a Montreal lawyer and chair of the Coalition for Quality Health and Social Services, said this latest controversy with the education ministry flies in the face of previous promises from the Legault government that rights to health and social services in English would be untouched.

"The fact of the matter is if people can't get access to the information that allows an autistic child to get the services they require that certainly is impinging on their health — and it is a question of health. Not all things that touch upon health are in the health ministry; they're also in the education ministry," he said.

He also lamented the fact that the government's directives for Bill 96 still have not been released almost two years since it was adopted.

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