The future of students 'is at stake', the head of an English language CEGEP speaks out about Bill 96
After three weeks of silence from the upper echelons of Quebec’s English CEGEP system, the head of Vanier College is speaking out about a controversial addition to the government's proposed language law and the stonewalling from the language minister’s office.
An amendment to Bill 96 would require all students in English-language CEGEPs to take three courses in French to graduate.
It was helped along and applauded by the Liberal MNAs on the committee analyzing the bill on Feb. 23 -- Helene David and David Birnbaum -- but it is not sitting well with the CEGEPs.
"Personally, I think I’ve had enough," said John McMahon, director-general of Vanier College, in an interview with CTV News.
"I've been an educator for more than 40 years. I cannot leave my career, I cannot finish without speaking up now."
"It's the interests of our future students that are at stake here," said McMahon, who is also co-chair of the English College Steering Committee. "Many of those students, while their French is sufficient to graduate from high school and would be sufficient to work and live in Quebec, studying a content course at higher education in French, is completely different."
It’s a view shared by others in the English-speaking community and education sector, including the head of a teachers’ union and the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA).
"There is potential for English CEGEP students' R Scores to be negatively affected, which may compromise admissions into competitive university programs," said Russell Copeman, QESBA’s executive director.
An R score "is used by the admissions offices of Quebec universities to compare and rank CEGEP students," as the Vanier College site explains.
LANGUAGE MINISTER 'WILL NOT MEET WITH US'
Despite the CEGEPs' low public profiles, behind the scenes, they’ve been wrestling with the issue from day one. They are also dealing with an added political peculiarity — that the Liberal MNAs present at the hearing that day helped broaden the scope of the government’s original idea. So while McMahon praises the support the English colleges have received from their respective Liberal MNAs past and present, there is now the feeling they’ve been let down by the party.
"On this particular amendment, we were extremely disappointed that that proposal to add the three courses in French for the English-speaking students came from the Liberals participating in that hearing," he said.
The Liberal MNA for D'Arcy-McGee, David Birnbaum, who noted aloud after the debate a few weeks ago their "pride at having proposed the amendment," defended the idea on Thursday after he was asked about the criticism.
"It's an idea that we think is really interesting and that we originated," Birnbaum reiterated.
"Let's be clear. There are tons of modalities to make this work in a positive fashion," he added, "so that our English kids can make this work without their own academic lives being compromised."
Birnbaum, also the official opposition critic for relations with English-speaking Quebecers, mused about how the CAQ government could accomplish that.
"Are there ways of incorporating French courses already required in English CEGEPs into those three courses? Are there ways of making sure that no core course need be taken in French?" he asked.
He said they discussed some of those ideas with the CEGEPs.
"We've talked to the directors general English CEGEPs and we've had really productive meetings about how they might explore with the minister," Birnbaum told CTV News.
McMahon confirmed they did have one "respectful" meeting with Birnbaum post-amendment, where they expressed their “strong disappointment” with him for proposing it and explained to him why it’s so problematic.
"We rejected the notion that all could be resolved post adoption by exploring modalities with the Ministry," McMahon told CTV in an email on Saturday.
Nonetheless, they asked for the Liberal MNAs' continued support related to Bill 96, he said – something that has not helped create any kind of rapprochement with the government so far.
"We have requested meetings with [Minister for the French Language] Simon Jolin-Barrette through the Federation des CEGEPs. He will not meet with us."
"I do not know what he is afraid of. I challenge him to meet with us and hear directly from us," since they were not consulted beforehand, McMahon said.
The English CEGEPs, he said, are willing to be "very effective partners" with the government when it comes to promoting the French language, but "the political agenda that is driving these decisions and these changes right now, without consultation, [are] simply not acceptable."
On Thursday, Minister of Higher Education Danielle McCann said they’d met with English CEGEPs "in the past,” and that they’re “going to help them organize everything."
"But the will is to really have French language as a priority in our institutions." she said.
'A HUGE MISTAKE'
With the new rule voted in, it appears likely it will be part of the province’s revamped language law in Quebec, much to the bafflement of political analyst Thomas Mulcair.
"What David Birnbaum and Helene David did that day was upset the apple cart for CEGEPs for years to come if this thing ever comes into force," he said, describing it as coming "out of the blue."
The idea wasn’t part of the original Liberal proposal that would have encouraged students to take more French courses, "which Anglade [the Liberal leader] pointed out the next day," Mulcair said.
"This vote was not only a huge mistake, it was catastrophic because now Simon Jolin-Barrette gets to say, well, the Liberals were in favour of it."
"Just think of what this means in terms of collective agreements. For example, you’ve got a bunch of people in the chemistry or the physics or the math department, how many of them could actually teach in French?" he added.
"And how does that change how you evaluate things? Do you take into account the quality of French?"
Some of these very questions were discussed at a recent meeting held by the Teachers’ Union at Dawson College.
"As expected many [teachers] are worried about what this means for their future," said Brian Seivewright, a chemistry teacher and union president, who envisions all kinds of hiring difficulties.
"We have many teachers who aren’t fluent in French so it’s definitely going to be an issue for certain disciplines," Seivewright said.
And, for the many who are fluent it’s one thing to speak and write in French in everyday life and quite another thing to teach in French when each language has different words for the same subjects, he said, pointing to the sciences as a prime example.
"I myself am quite fluent in French," Seivewright said, "however I’ve never taught in French and for me to teach chemistry class in French would [require] a period of adaptation for sure. I’d have to review all my terminology."
He agreed with others that taking core courses in French could be "detrimental" for students' grades if they only have basic French.
"I understand that there have to be mechanisms put in place to protect the French language in Quebec. I don’t believe this is the right way to go about it," he said.
It’s difficult, then, to foresee exactly how it will all play out.
"Since it was so ill-considered, my hope is that they’ll probably enact it, but never proclaim it into force," Mulcair said.
The CEGEPs are also assuming it’s going to become law, "as flawed as it is," said McMahon.
"We have no option but to express our concerns in very detailed fashion publicly to the Anglophone community, and also to the Francophone and Allophone community," the educator said.
They’ll be considering what they can do to either delay the implementation by several years, to have an appropriate transition period, and how best to mitigate the adverse impact of any particular article that is part of the new language law.
"That's our only choice. We have to keep fighting. And we have to keep striving to do what we need to do in order to ensure our students have a maximum chance of success," McMahon said.
The transcript of the clause-by-clause consideration of Bill 96, An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec, can be found here. The discussion in question occurred on Feb. 23 at 5 p.m.
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