Thursday, March 31, 2005

Challenging Bill 101

Today's Supreme Court rulings on language rights in Quebec were of great interest to me. Would francophone and allophone parents get Bill 101 overturned, and win the right to send their children to English language schools? Would the narrow definition of "a majority of a child's education in English" be enlarged by the courts for those ayant droit as it were, to send their children to school in English in Quebec.

For all the anticipation, the rulings were as straight-forward as can be. Yes, the courts ruled that decisions on the right to English education in Quebec for those children coming from other provinces should be judged more expansively, on a case-by-case basis. This is in line with earlier decisions which ruled that the original provisions of Bill 101, which required that children could only be educated in English in Quebec if either their older siblings or parents had also been educated in English in Quebec, were unconstitutional, and thus broadened access to make Canada the geographical frame of reference for access.

The second case, Gosselin, never had a snowball's chance in hell. Nowhere in Section 23 of the Charter does it say anything about the right of the majority language population to send their children to minority language schools. This was never the intent of the legislation. True, in the 1970s and 80s, some other provinces used to allow this to occur - often to scrounge up a viable number of students to open a French school. But as school management rights are being won by francophone minority communities, increasingly these children are being redirected to French Immersion schools. The Supreme Court was not going to gut the basic premise of Bill 101 almost 30 years after it was passed.

The fact that the appeal was launched does, however, speak to a fundamental problem with Quebec's approach to language learning. A system that once was the envy of other provinces for producing fluent bilingualism is faltering. Francophones are rightly upset over the poor manner in which English is taught in the French system. Unlike their counterparts in the rest of the country, there is no "English immersion" offered in the public schools for those parents who want their children to grow up bilingual. There are private schools, but this is a costly route indeed. In fact, Quebec francophones start learning their second language later than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. Under Bill 101, English is introduced no earlier than Grade 3. The Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, which used to start ESL in Grade 1 in its French schools, fought this in the late-70s, and was overruled by the Minister of Education, Jacques-Yvan Morin.

Indeed, Quebec is a worldwide anomaly in the manner in which it teaches second languages. Throughout Europe second language instruction (often in English) routinely begins in the first grade, with no detriment to the mother tongue skills of the children. But there is a fear here that starting English instruction earlier will harm French language skills. This is not borne out by educational studies, but is politically strong stuff.

Section 23 was never intended to cope with this problem, and I'm surprised that the court even agreed to rule on that case. Change on this front has to come from lobbying the Quebec government. Unfortunately, Quebec francophone parents who want their children to have a fighting chance to become bilingual still seem to be in the minority, and right now it would be political suicide for the Charest government to be seen tinkering with Bill 101. So the disastrous status quo shall remain in place. More's the pity.

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