Monday, May 22, 2006

French Immersion - back in the news

This year's Liberal leadership race and change in government, both of which have been heavilly affected by the Conservative resurgence in Quebec, have prompted a revival of interest in how Canada deals with English-French relations and how it has structured its language policies. This is good for me, given my own research. And that's why, driving through a rainstorm around Drummondville, Quebec on Friday afternoon, I got a call from Gloria Galloway of the Globe & Mail, who was working on this article about federal support for French-as-a-second-language and French immersion programs. An hour later, safely inside, I responded to her questions.

My contribution to this piece was fairly small. I was asked about how much the federal government has spent on FSL education over the past thirty-odd years. Fortunately, I had a copy of my book with me for my trip to Central Canada (I'm on the road for research and conferences for two weeks), and could pull out some figures from the appendix. But my response was not as precise as it could have been if I'd had access to my home files, and if I hadn't just completed an eleven-hour drive from Sackville to Montreal.

If you're interested, a more thorough response to the question that she asked would have gone this way:

The federal government's involvement in funding FSL and French immersion came about as part of the B&B Commission's recommendations, which were incorporated into a federal-provincial agreement now known as the Official Languages in Education Program, which started in 1970. Mainly intended to fund French language education for francophone minority communities, it also provided funding for FSL classes, and for English-minority education and ESL in Quebec. French immersion was not a going concern when the program was created, but became eligible for funding after a couple of years, at Ontario's request, and then became wildly popular, and grew dramatically as a result of the federal seed money.

Annual federal expenditures on OLEP (on all programs) grew from an initial $50M to over $200M by 1977, when all federal language programs were slashed in 1977-78, as part of a wide range of federal cutbacks. Funding then crept up slowly over the course of the 1980s, until they were again cut in 1993-4. Funding levels were restored in the late 1990s.

The plateau in immersion enrollments that is referred to in the article happened at the same time as the early 1990s cutbacks. Short on funding, these programs, which are still seen as "extras" in many provinces, were forced to restrict their enrolments - demand outstrips capacity, which has long been the problem of French immersion.

And if you're interested, while I'm the right age to be an immersion kid, I didn't go through the system. My French is the product of slogging through the core FSL programs in Toronto, programs that have done a fairly poor job of fostering bilingualism among the general population. Until pedagogical experts are listened to, and enough hours per week are spent on second-language learning, these "core" programs will not produce a satisfactory level of bilingualism (even passive/receptive bilingualism) in Canada's children. My understanding is that in some provinces, and in the past decade, this has started to improve, which is a long overdue corrective to the system.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

How bilingual is your favorite Liberal candidate?

According to a test of their skills conducted by the Globe and Mail and a professor with the University of Ottawa's second language institute, probably not as bilingual as they want you to believe.

Of the 11 candidates, here's who made the grade, in descending order: Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff, Stéphane Dion, Joe Volpe, and Martha Hall Findlay.

Failing to make the grade as bilingual, but closest to being able to improve their language skills to a passing level: Gerard Kennedy and Maurizio Bevilacqua.

Trailing behind: Scott Brison, Ken Dryden, Carolyn Bennett.

Did not take the test, and doesn't think bilingualism is a requirement for the next leader: Hedy Fry.

I should note that this test measured the capacity of leaders to actively produce oral responses in French, as they might have to in a debate, and does not measure their passive bilingualism (or ability to comprehend spoken and written French). Still, the debate is going to be pretty key during the campaign.

It will be interesting to see who makes the grade three months from now.

Update: Thanks to Calgary Grit for pointing out that the Globe & Mail made an error - A grade of "2" does qualify as bilingual, according to the University of Ottawa standards, and thus both Kennedy and Bevilaqua should have been counted in this category, if less fluent than the others.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

André Pratte, Aux pays des merveilles. Essai sur les mythes politiques québécois

A couple of months ago, Toronto Star columnist Graham Fraser wrote about an important new book on the subject of Quebec nationalism and separatism. Written by La Presse chief editorialist André Pratte, Aux pays des merveilles. Essai sur les mythes politiques québécois is a thought-provoking, detailed examination of the many myths of sovereignist/separatist rhetoric in Quebec. As someone who voted in favour of both referenda, Pratte has changed his mind about where Quebec's future lies, and has written a stinging critique of the sovereignist project. It is a testament to his writing skill that I spent a Friday evening reading his book, unable to put it down. (Of course, when one lives in rural New Brunswick, the options for evening entertainment are more limited, but that should by no means be taken to reduce the significance of my enthusiasm for his keen writing style and probing analysis).

The 1995 "Oui" slogan could perhaps be considered the starting point for his analysis. "Oui, et ça devient possible!" could be read on advertizing panels throughout the province. But what lies on the other side of that looking glass that Bouchard, Parizeau et al wanted Quebeckers to pass through? According to Pratte, a world of unfathomably rosy assumptions, wishful thinking and self-delusions. Among other aspects of the separatist project, Pratte skewers the optimistic economic forecasts of the Legault budget, the unreasonable immigration projections and the coldly rational response envisaged from the rest of Canada. In each case, he argues, the transition period would be a far more dismal state of affairs than the separatists wanted to have the people believe.

In light of the recent scandal over the teaching of history in Quebec, where Ministry of Education officials proposed a major (but overly aggressive, in my opinion) reworking of the history curriculum that would not dwell completely on Quebec's grievances against the rest of Canada - the Conquest, the 1837 rebellions, the 1982 Constitution - it is interesting to see that Pratte, like the Parti Quebecois government that initiated the curriculum review, sees weaknesses in how Quebec history has been taught. As Pratte points out, the teaching of history in Quebec has been geared to training young nationalists. Where, he asks, are the stories of successful collaboration between English- and French-Canadians? Why is so much focus placed on the Lord Durham report, and not on the Baldwin-Lafontaine collaborations that supplanted it? Where are the heroic tales of Georges-Etienne Cartier as a Father of Confederation? Why is Quebec painted as a perpetual victim, helpless to shape its destiny, when it has accomplished so much within Canadian federalism?

And indeed, it is on the nature of Canadian federalism and the position of Quebec within this system that Pratte is at his strongest. He rightly points out that rarely, if ever, do you hear mention of Quebec's about-faces on the Fulton-Favreau formula (1964) and Victoria Charter (1971) after Premiers Lesage and Bourassa had struck a deal with the other premiers and the Prime Minister. And yet Meech Lake is the great betrayal? And why is federalism such a grievous injustice to Quebec? Time and time again, Pratte demonstrates, Canadian federalism has been able to accord Quebec the powers it has sought over pensions, immigration, and numerous other sectors. The problem, he argues, is that every time Quebec has a new demand, it is presented as a "long-standing grievance" worthy of withdrawal from Confederation. Even the so-called fiscal imbalance - the rallying cry of Gilles Duceppe - is a very recent phenomena, no more than a decade old at most, and not a deep injustice to the province requiring a massive redistribution of tax powers, but a minor tweaking of taxation levels. This is not the approach of a mature partner in Confederation.

It is gratifying to have an eloquent francophone voice pointing out these myths of the sovereignist/separatist project. Pratte believes that Canadian federalism is flexible enough to meet the needs and aspirations of Quebeckers, and I agree with him. Hopefully his book will be widely read, and used by defenders of federalism in the ongoing debates over the future of the province.

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Quebec - Is it Manifesto season again?

Golly, it seems like yesterday that the last big manifesto came out of Quebec. But, so soon after Michel Tremblay and Robert Lepage expressed their doubts about the future of the sovereignty project, there is another one making headlines in Le Devoir. This one, Manifeste pour une approche réaliste de la souveraineté - Pour en finir avec certains sophismes is the work of a number of high-profile sovereignist academics, including political scientist Guy Lachappelle, sociologist Jacques Beauchemin and politico-types like Jean-Roch Boivin, former advisor to René Lévesque et Lucien Bouchard.

It seems like Andre Boisclair can't catch a break from his merry band of separatists, despite flying high in the polls. The artists aren't convinced of the future of the project. The left-wingers want their own party. A majority of voters would turn on him if the charismatic Lucien Bouchard (co-author of the first manifesto cited above) returned to head the right-wing ADQ. And now he has a group of moderates slamming the idea of a UDI, or a referendum-election. Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm not a fan of the separatist agenda, but there is some clear-headed thinking in this manifesto (only available in French, from what I can see so far). Among other points, it recognizes that the era of playing games with referendum wording, soft support for separatism, etc. is over, and that short of a clear majority on a clear question, Canada will not negotiate, and more to the point, other nations will be leery of extending international recognition. As Paul Wells was telling us a few months ago, all eyes in Quebec were watching the Montenegro referendum on secession, where the international community essentially said "50%+1 won't cut it." I cite below a brief extract from the conclusions:

Bref, le Québec deviendra indépendant lorsque telle sera la volonté clairement exprimée d’une majorité suffisante de Québécois. Et les indépendantistes feraient mieux de s’employer à construire cette majorité, d’abord en inspirant la nécessaire confiance à leurs concitoyens, plutôt que de s’évertuer à passer outre par quelque voie détournée et de se chamailler pour savoir qui a trouvé la meilleure astuce. Que d’énergie ne perdons-nous pas en chimères, folles illusions, fausses pistes et fantasmagoriques échéanciers !

I still intend to get my post up on Andr
é Pratte's book, which demolishes many of the separatist myths - that will be up soon as well. But permit me a quick reflection. Where are the teams of scholars working together with politicians and cultural leaders to produce counter-manifestos on where they want Canada to head in the future? And why isn't this the stuff of front page news? Are Canadians content to simply sit back and let Stephen Harper (who does know what he wants to do) to remove the federal government from an active role in shaping social policy? Is there a counter-vision anymore?

Perhaps this is related to a fundamental difference between ideologies in Quebec and the rest of Canada. Quebec nationalists, accustomed to the discourse of collective rights, seem to like writing as collectives, while Canadians, inscribed in a Charter-nationalism discourse of individual rights, wait for a crusading white knight (Trudeau's heir, one supposes) to propose a grand new vision, rather than working together to develop one drawing on each of their areas of special expertise.

Just a little food for thought for your Friday morning.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Shrinking Library Budgets

Mount Allison University is currently facing a budgetary crunch, and one of the areas that has been hit is the library budget. As someone who primarily researches on issues of French Canada and Quebec, I can accept that French-language journals and books would not be a top priority for an English-language university, especially since the Universite de Moncton is only a half hour away. They subscribe to a few major journals, and get some key books, which is a credit to them. I just spend a lot of time filling out inter-library loan forms.

What is not acceptable, in my books, is that when they lost their copy of Pierre Trudeau's Federalism and the French Canadians, they didn't immediately replace it. It's widely available second-hand at a bare minimum. This is one of the defining texts of Canadian identity and federalism, and the library is simply listing it as "Lost", with a due date of "NEVER".

ARGH! I think I have a second copy kicking around the house - I might just have to donate it. No respectable library should have its budget cut so far as to be unable to replace the essentials.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

How do you count a married homosexual? Census methodology for geeks and gays

The construction of census questions is a matter of keen interest for the historical profession. Social historians, in particular, love to pore over the manner in which questions have been phrased, instructions given to census-takers, etc. One of my former professors at the University of Ottawa, Chad Gaffield, is currently co-directing a massive project examining the turn-of-the-century censuses. The census is a crucial source for historians - and I'll take this opportunity to request that anyone reading this check the box allowing your data to be made public in 92 years.

Moving on to the main reason for this post...

Yesterday I filled out the census. It was my first time doing so, and I got to do the long form. It wasn't until this morning though, that I discovered that there is a minor controversy involving the collection of marriage data, which has been highlighted by EGALE. It seems that Statistics Canada doesn't quite know what to do with us married gay folks. While filling out Question 6, I blithely ticked off "legally married husband or wife" to indicate my husband's relationship to me in the online census form. I didn't even think there would be another acceptable answer. However, it turns out that the paper version is asking same-sex married couples to tick "other" and then write in your status in the provided box. Perhaps the online version does too, but I didn't notice anything on the main page to indicate that I was making a mistake. (According to EGALE, if you did what I did, StatsCan says that you will still be counted correctly, and EGALE is urging you to do just that)

This state of affairs, frankly, is ridiculous. Same-sex marriage has been legal for three years in some provinces, and throughout the country for a year (and it was coming down the pipeline long before then). There is no good excuse as to why this could not have been properly incorporated onto the forms. EGALE is asking people to write in to StatsCan to treat same-sex married couples equally, as the legislation requires. I suspect that this won't have a big impact, since the next census is another five years away. But if you want to express your moral outrage, then feel free to do so!

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Tax cuts for some, miniature Canadian flags for others

Ok, I made the second part of that up.

Looks like the intention of this budget is to throw tax cuts at everyone. One thing I did notice, and you won't see it get much coverage, is this:

"The removal of the current $3,000 cap on the amount of scholarship, bursary and fellowship income students can have without paying federal income tax."

About freaking time! The Quebec government already has this policy in place. It has always struck me as incredibly stupid that the federal government would pay out scholarship money, only to claw a good chunk of it back. Now, let's see if the Conservatives maintain the recent increases in funding to SSHRC, NSERC and other granting agencies.

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Grade Inflation or "The Curse of the Aggressive Undergraduate"

Yesterday's Globe and Mail featured an article by education reporter Caroline Alphonso on the phenomenon of students who demand high grades from their professors, which she attributes to the rise of a consumer culture in education. Essentially, she argues that because students are paying so much tuition, they feel that they are owed "A"s in return.

As someone who has been both teaching and grading in the university system for the past eight years, this prompted a few observations on my part. The first was to think "No kidding. You finally caught on to this story several years after everyone in the university community did." Education reporting seems to lag several years behind the times, it always seems to me. That might also explain what seem to be out-of-date assessments of universities in the annual rankings compiled by various media outlets. But I digress...

I observed much of what Alphonso writes about when I was teaching in Montreal and Ottawa. Numerous students, after receiving low grades on papers, would appeal their marks to me on the basis that "they had put a lot of effort into them". This line of argumentation rarely got far with me. Even worse, and unobserved by this article, was the argument that a student needed high grades "to get into law school/med school/graduate school". From my perspective, the integrity of the admissions process in those institutions relied on undergraduate assesments being fair and as honest as possible. In other words, undergraduate instructors are the gatekeepers for post-graduate study, and it is incumbent upon us to stop grade inflation.

A more disturbing trend, which I also heard about from colleagues, but did not experience myself, is the rise in students trying to intimidate their professors into raising their grades. This seemed to be particularly common where there was the combination of a male student and female professor. All of these issues need to be more thoroughly discussed in public forums, and I'm glad that Alphonso and other education reporters are, albeit belatedly, raising these issues in the mass media.

For what it's worth, I have not had many similar complaints at my present university, Mount Allison. I'm not entirely certain how to account for the difference in academic culture, but my colleagues have noted similar differences between teaching here and in other (often more urban) settings. It could make for an interesting analysis.

In completely unrelated news, I finished reading La Presse chief editorialist André Pratte's new book, Aux pays des merveilles over the weekend. I'll have a full review up later this week on this provocative examination of the sovereignty movement and Canadian federalism.

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