The Bill 96 effect: CEGEP student warns others to get their English eligibility certificate before it's too late
A John Abbott College student has learned the hard way that applying for a certificate of eligibility for English instruction before graduating high school has become even more critical under the new French language law in Quebec.
It's a cautionary tale that rights-holders should heed if they want to safeguard those rights to English education down the line, especially now, says the executive director of the Quebec English School Board Association (QESBA).
"Even before Bill 96 (as it's known), we have been saying publicly, with only limited success, I might add, that there is a definite value and advantage to getting a certificate of eligibility for your children, even if they're going to French schools," said Russell Copeman. "And with Bill 96, those advantages multiply."
Heni Mockin, a Montreal resident who speaks English at home, has missed out on the benefits that might have rightfully been hers, which include passing on those English education rights to any future offspring.
She says that based on her father's schooling in Montreal, she thinks she'd be eligible, but she's been told it's too late to request the document now.
And she never needed it before. Mockin attended an accredited French-language elementary and high school, Beit Rivkah Academy in Montreal.
The 19-year-old only learned about the existence of eligibility certificates when she realized she'd been funnelled into the newly designed CEGEP stream for non-rights holders and couldn't keep up with her Francophone classmates.
"All the people in Francais renforcement (a class to strengthen French writing) spoke French their whole life, but they're still in Francais renforcement. I haven't spoken French my whole life, and I'm also there," she said.
"I was like, okay, this is definitely not my level of French. I realized this is very advanced for my level."
Mockin doesn't think she'll be able to do well in the core courses she has to take in French or pass the French exit exam, even though she's attending the free tutoring John Abbott College has offered her, and she is worried.
If she fails the mandatory French exit exam in three years, she won't graduate from her dental hygienist program.
Mockin researched her options. She learned people must apply for eligibility through the school board in their jurisdiction -- in her case, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB). Her request was turned down.
"Unfortunately, the system does not allow us to send an application for a student who no longer attends either an elementary or high school," an administrator from the EMSB told her in an email.
"I'm really upset as a student…and I'm happy to advocate for everybody that's going through this situation," she said.CEGEP student Heni Mockin learned too late she can no longer apply for an English Eligibility certificate and so is required to take a French exit exam, as mandated by Quebec's new language law.
APPLICATION DEADLINE SHOULD BE EXTENDED
The eligibility deadline that the government seems to apply as a rule is a sticking point for Copeman.
He says it would be appropriate for the education ministry to extend it now that the language law's reach also extends beyond high school to CEGEP and into everyday life.
Having the eligibility certificate, he says, "is one of the criteria that lets you get services in English, just more broadly, from the Government of Quebec. So the benefit of that certificate has, I would say, been broadened. So the current policy of the education department saying we're not going to issue a certificate of eligibility to anyone who is no longer in school is quite narrow," said Copeman.
"Why not issue them after you've left school? What is the problem with that?"
"We're not even sure what the legal basis is for the Department of Education to say, no, we're not issuing certificates of eligibility after you've left the school system. So I think that, yes, that needs to be rethought. I think it's one of those things the government didn't give any thought to during the adoption of Bill 96. And, you know, now we're grappling with those consequences," said Copeman.
CTV News wrote to the education ministry on Wednesday to ask if someone can get the certificate after they graduate from high school, and asked them to provide the legal reason behind the government practice.
A spokesperson did not provide a response before publication time.
About ten days later, education ministry spokesperson Esther Chouinard replied and reiterated that a student has to apply for eligibility "before the end of their high school studies in Quebec."
Chouinard did not provide the government's legal justification for the rule, as requested.
APPLY AND APPLY EARLY, JUST IN CASE
Copeman suggests that now is the time for the English-speaking community to ensure they exercise their rights so that students can reach their full potential.
"Bill 96 says that students who have been declared eligible for English instruction are to be given priority admission to English CEGEPs," said Copeman.
Those students are also exempt from the French exit exam, and they can choose to take three extra French second-language courses instead of core courses in French.
"In a bill that, generally speaking, we think is bad for English-speaking Quebecers – Bill 96, [which] infringes on our rights, is bad for Quebec, paradoxically, there are these advantages in Bill 96 to graduates who have a certificate of eligibility," he said.
Copeman encourages any parent who believes their child is eligible to apply for a certificate of eligibility when the child is very young.
"You decide that perhaps French school is not working out, you want to send them to English schools, well, you have the piece of paper. You don't have to wait months for the issuance of a certificate of eligibility," he said.
On Thursday, QESBA called on the government to clear up a backlog of more than 400 applications, mainly from the Montreal area, that has forced children to miss the first three weeks of school while they wait for government authorization to attend English school.
Also, while it might feel strange, Copeman suggested parents put themselves in "grandparent mode" and think of the next generation.
"Even if they go to French schools, if they were issued a certificate of eligibility, they pass those rights onto their children," he confirmed.
Mockin's family didn't know much about the province's eligibility system or the rights it conferred.
They are not alone. Experts say many families are understandably confused about the new rules at English CEGEPs and by elements of the previous language law.
The superintendent of admissions for Lester B. Pearson School Board, who helps process parents' applications and has become an eligibility expert of sorts, says some eligible families are not aware they can obtain the certificate even if they never use it.
"A parent can apply for eligibility and receive a certificate of eligibility just in case for their child even if the child is enrolled in French school and may not ever attend English school," Laura Tuccia said in an email.
Even though Mockin says she speaks and understands French well, she still feels ill-prepared to take challenging core science courses from her CEGEP program in French despite spending years at a French school.
First, the teenager started CEGEP two years later because she needed prerequisite courses to be accepted into the dental hygiene program.
Also, like many teenagers, she completed Grade 10 and 11 during the pandemic and struggled with distance learning.
"Tenth grade was the pandemic, and everybody was online, and the ministry exam was cancelled completely," Mockin said.
She also said the French instruction she received might have been adequate for those who speak French at home but didn't prepare her for an English CEGEP, post-Bill 96.
"If you didn't grow up speaking French your whole life, it's not sufficient," she said.
Mockin says she is doing whatever she can to improve her French.
"I definitely need it," she acknowledges, and says she is prepared to persevere.
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