The Quebec government reiterated Monday that it is taking the concerns of the province’s English-language communities seriously.
“Language is not a zero-sum game in Quebec,” admitted Christopher Skeete, parliamentary assistant to the premier for relations with English-speaking Quebecers.
“I think we can protect the French language and still protect English in Quebec, so for me, I’m optimistic for what’s going to happen next and I’m sure it’ll be the fruit of consensus.”
This comes after two controversial moves by the Quebec government: Bill 21, which forbids civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols; and the education minister’s decision to transfer three English schools to French-language boards.
WATCH BELOW: Teacher says she feels penalized by Bill 21
“Access to English education is a right, so nobody’s talking about touching that,” Skeete insisted.
“Control of English institutions is a right, so nobody’s talking about touching that. I think what’s really important is that we see ourselves as Quebecers.”
Addressing the school transfers, the MNA for Sainte-Rose, in Laval, agreed “it was not fun. It was not an enjoyable thing.”
“Nobody’s happy about what happened, but understand that English rights will be protected and English access to education will always be protected,” he said.
“That [the transfers] was about Quebecers, whether they were English or French. Quebecers who didn’t have a school because it was overcrowded and other Quebecers had space. Unfortunately, we had to act.”
WATCH BELOW: Quebec Education Minister explains decision to transfer two schools from EMSB to the French system
Last month, both the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) and the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM) announced that, despite their fervent opposition to the province’s secularism bill, they would be complying with the law.
With recent reports that at least two school boards have allegedly been forced to reject teacher applicants because of religious symbols, Skeete acknowledged that though the number of people affected by the law “is kind of low,” he understands that it has caused anxiety for some.
“The bill was moderate and it doesn’t apply to the whole civil service, I think sometimes we tend to forget that. It applies to persons in authority,” he told Global News.
“It’s a change. It’s a change for everybody, really, and I think while we get our bearing, it’s just going to be a question of adapting our approach. I’m confident in the end that we’ll figure it out. Change is never easy.”
Last week, Skeete, who was first elected to the National Assembly in the 2018 provincial elections, began a tour to speak to various groups in an effort to find out what issues matter most to anglophones.
WATCH BELOW: Religious symbols debate turns another corner
The first stop: Gaspésie.
“They spoke to us about accessing different services, health care, how to have better general access within the Quebec government, things that we kind of knew already and suspected, but really wanted to confirm,” he said.
“A good example is there are government programs that are rolled out all the time and sometimes they don’t take into consideration the specificity of some of these English community groups, so the idea is how do we give them access to government programs that they’re entitled to have access to.”
Community groups are invited to speak at round table discussions, that will be recorded to produce a report giving recommendations to the government “that speaks to the facts.”
“We’re very focused on employment, especially in the English community. Did you know that if the unemployment rate was the same in the English community as it is in the francophone community, we’d have 12,000 more workers currently at work?” he asked.
“These are the kinds of metrics I’m looking at to make sure that we have access to better jobs and the jobs that we should be getting. And the question is again, why aren’t we getting those jobs? Is it a language gap? Is it an education gap? I’m trying to get to the bottom of what that is.”
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There will be a total of eight Quebec regions that will be part of the initial consultations — including Quebec City, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Laval and Montreal.
The government then plans to do three sector-specific consultations on topics such as cultural, social and economic development.
The tour is expected to finish in 2020, resulting in a five-year action plan.
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