Recent amendments to Quebec’s new language bill are targeting English junior colleges because the schools are increasingly popular among non-anglophones, say students and representatives of the college system.
The colleges are being scapegoated for the perceived decline in the vitality of French in Quebec, they say, adding that if the bill is passed, it would jeopardize student success and compromise the freedom of young French speakers to decide where they go to school.
Bill 96 includes several amendments restricting access to English-language junior colleges, including a cap on the number of students who can attend. The bill is designed to strengthen the province’s flagship language law, Bill 101, but two representatives of the college system say the schools are being targeted by the government because of their success.
Bernard Tremblay, head of the association of Quebec junior colleges – called CEGEPs — says that over the last decade or so, the popularity of English colleges has grown among francophones and allophones — students whose mother tongue is neither English nor French.
“We’ve made CEGEPS the scapegoat for the issue of French vitality in Quebec when we all know the real question is, ‘why are more and more young francophones and allophones wanting to pursue their training in English?”’ said Tremblay, president of the Fédération des cégeps.
“Well, it’s probably because the job market demands bilingualism.”
Blaming junior colleges, he said, is an attempt to find “a simple solution to a complex problem.”
Since hearings on Bill 96 resumed after the Christmas break, parliamentarians have approved a series of amendments that have raised alarm in the junior college community, which says it was not consulted on the changes.
Those amendments would freeze the number of students enrolled in the English system at current levels, and they wouldn’t allow the number to rise even if the population of anglophones grows in Quebec. They would also force all students at English colleges to take at least three core classes in French, excluding courses about the French language.
The latter proposal is particularly concerning for Tremblay, who says his association estimates that about a third of English students — the vast majority of whom are bilingual — would struggle to pass or achieve good grades in French.
“This knowledge does not allow them to take a course in philosophy, anatomy or sociology in French and pass it at a level that guarantees them adequate grades to get into university,” he said.
The amendments, however, could backfire. Tremblay said they could push talented young Quebecers to move outside the province to study, or they could make English-language CEGEPs even more attractive to French speakers because the colleges would be more exclusive.
The Opposition Liberal party, who had been the one to propose the French course requirement be extended to anglophones, backtracked this week and suggested scrapping its own amendment, admitting it hadn’t done enough consultation and didn’t want to see students fail.
John McMahon, director general of Montreal’s Vanier College, says English CEGEPs have become scapegoated in recent years by nationalist politicians who unfairly blame them for a perceived decline in the use of French. He said that over the last ten years, the percentage of students in English colleges who are not native English speakers has grown to up to 60 per cent from 30 per cent.
“(English junior colleges) get far more applicants then we can take and most of the English colleges have grown to overcapacity, so this has become an issue in Quebec and the English colleges have been targeted as the vectors of the anglicization,” he said.
McMahon says half of Vanier’s directors are francophones and denies that the school is a “bastion of anglicization,” noting many of its graduates go on to French universities.
“I invite people to walk around the halls of Vanier college or Dawson College and John Abbott College or any of our (English) colleges, they’re going to hear multiple languages; they’re going to see a wide variety of students with different ethnic backgrounds,” he said.
Alexandrah Cardona, president of the student union at Montreal’s Dawson College, says there’s a lot of worry about how the amendments will affect students.
Bill 96 would also force English CEGEPs to prioritize students who did their primary and secondary education in English. In addition to concerns over the French requirement, Cardona said she worries students will be robbed of the experience of attending school with colleagues of diverse backgrounds.
“Students work very hard to be accepted to Dawson because they believe in this diversity of the community and the curriculum,” Cardona said. “To unfortunately be thrown under the bus by the current government in an election year is really hurtful.”
Cardona says the legislation runs counter to the spirit of the junior college system, which was created in the 1960s to increase access to higher education.
“It’s not just a matter of how it affects specifically the English community; it’s even larger than that,” she said.
“It’s about why are we placing restrictions on equitable access to education in a society where we’ve established this exact (CEGEP) network specifically for that purpose?”