Thursday, September 27, 2012

French Immersion in Peel Region - Plus ça change

The Peel District School board in Ontario has made headlines this week for an all-too-familiar Canadian problem: burgeoning enrollment in French immersion, and limited capacity to accommodate the student demand.  Sadly, the board has resulted to a tried-and-failed approach to dealing with this problem - using a lottery system to determine which students will be admitted to the program.  Today, the Globe and Mail has dedicated one of its editorials to criticizing this short-sighted policy.

It is an all-too-familiar problem in this country, and one which you'd think we might have solved by now.  French immersion has been around longer than I have, and yet the current situation faced by the Peel board has been repeated in province after province, board after board, over the past 40 years.  Lotteries, line-ups and other limited access solutions have caused outrage and problems in community after community.  Indeed, I've published an article on how a similar situation in Sackville, New Brunswick in the early 1980s was the impetus for a new province-wide policy of immersion on demand where numbers warranted it.  Of course, New Brunswick has recently been in the midst of major turmoil as it overhauls its French immersion offerings.

Alas, the problem of French immersion is not a simple nut to crack.  While many boards will use program costs as an excuse for not creating programs - an issue well debunked by the Globe editorial, which refers to the federal Official Languages in Education program funding - there are some real, structural problems which require long-term thinking and serious structural adjustments.  I would argue that these require province-wide policy directions, rather than ad hoc solutions at the board level.

Take for example, the issue of teachers.  Although the Globe editorialist notes that there is currently a surplus of French teachers in the province of Ontario, that is not the same thing as having a surplus of teachers who would be competent to teach French immersion - which requires a much higher level of oral fluency and mastery - as opposed to teaching core French as a school subject.  Teacher shortages have been a problem for decades with the French immersion programs.  Most parents ideally want a fluent francophone teacher, and in many jurisdictions, the available teachers who meet that criterion are currently teaching in the French-language schools targeted at the francophone minority.  Importing teachers as a strategy used in many provinces, but many Quebec francophone teachers have no desire to teach French immersion in Oakville or Calgary or Nanaimo. 

Then there is the question of teacher redundancy.  A jump in immersion enrolments from 10 to 25% of the grade 1 population over a decade cannot simply be accommodated by hiring more teachers.  There is a question of what to do with the English-language grade 1 teachers in the board who are no longer needed to teach in the English stream.  That is a major staffing challenge that requires long term thinking - and a compassionate approach to the existing teachers.

That is just the tip of the iceberg with this long-standing challenge of implementing French language instruction in Canada.  Solving it requires long-term strategy, a deliberate and well-thought-out set of provincial policies, and effective communication of educational policy objectives to the public.  I agree with the main thrusts of the Globe's editorial - access to quality language education should not be a matter of luck of the draw - but solving this problem requires long-term vision, teacher training and recruitment, and creative thinking about how to deal with the displacements created by new educational priorities and parental preferences.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Shared Embassies - Imperial Federation League Redux

Many people have already vociferously attacked the recent, and highly publicized, announcement by John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, that Canada and the United Kingdom have brokered a deal to share embassy space in a number of countries as a cost-saving measure.  It is hard not to think that the fact that this was the subject of a press release, rather than a quiet administrative arrangement (as currently exists, for example, between Canada and Australia in a number of countries) is because this decision is part and parcel of the current Conservative government's efforts to re-Britishify Canada's identity.

I share many of my colleagues' concern with this development, at least in part because of my understanding of Canadian history, which includes national narratives about Canada's twentieth-century development largely being a story of progressive Canadian disentanglement from British control over our foreign policy, while still remaining close allies.  The decision to create separate Canadian overseas offices in the 1920s and 1930s was part and parcel of showing that Canada and Britain did not always necessarily speak with one voice and that their interests were not identical.  In many respects, Canadian foreign policy autonomy was hard-won.  And yet, now I find myself snarkilly inventing Onion-esque headlines for where this policy direction could lead, albeit taken to some absurd extremes.  To wit:

Canada to ask United Kingdom to retroactively counter-sign 1923 Pacific Halibut Fisheries treaty: "It just never felt right not having Britain's permission, official says."

John Baird issues formal apology to United Kingdom for Canada's failure to enthusiastically volunteer troops for 1922 Chanak Crisis: "Do you have any brewing concerns in Turkey today that we can send the Royal Canadian Air Force to help you out with?" foreign affairs minister asks.

Canadian government asks to have signature removed from the Treaty of Versailles, and membership in the League of Nations stricken from the historical record - Canadian government admits it was being uppity in 1919. 

I've got more where those come from, but this gives you a pretty good sense of my mood this afternoon!

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

What's wrong with this sentence?

The following sentence appears in a recently-published book about Canadian history:

"After Ontario, Québec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick became provinces within the new Dominion of Canada in 1867, after the federal government purchased Rupert's Land in 1869, and after British Columbia became a Canadian province in 1871, Canada became a coast-to-coast political entity encompassing a vast array of geographies and cultures."

This book was short-listed for a number of awards, so it will likely attract a reasonable-sized readership among the academic community.  I'm not sure who should be most embarrassed by this rather glaring error - the scholarly press, the copy editor, the peer reviewers, or the author - all of whom should have had at least a passing familiarity with the Confederation-era development of Canada.

I started off by reading the introduction and conclusion, and so I have yet to make my way through the main chapters of the book to get into its main subject matter (which is not about Canada's political development, thank goodness), but this has left a rather bad first impression.

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Sunday, September 09, 2012

Quebec election and electoral reform

To follow up on my earlier post about the Quebec election, here's a link to an article in the Montreal Gazette, where I speak a bit about past elections in Quebec and how the first-past-the-post system leads to some particularly wide divergences between the popular vote and the seat count in the legislature.

There's quite a bit more that could be added to that article.  For instance, in my conversation with the reporter, I mentioned how many federal elections in Quebec had produced wildly distorted results, whether in favour of the NDP in the last election, or for the Bloc in several previous ones. Jean Charest, who lost his seat in this election, would have been all too aware of the 1993 federal election when he was one of a mere 2 Progressive Conservatives elected, despite his party having won over 16% of the popular vote.

Also, while most people have pointed out that the CAQ, which only won 19 seats with their 27% of the vote (as opposed to about 33 which a strict percentage of the seats might have produced), Quebec Solidaire also was hurt by the current system.  6% of the vote should probably produce more than a mere 2 seats in the legislature.  Indeed, under a proportional representation system, for example, they might easily have won 5-7 seats.

All of that being said, I am certainly not holding my breath that we're about to see the CAQ and the Quebec Liberals teaming up to push electoral reform in Quebec.  But it would be nice to see, both in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, a continued rise in support among Canadians for a change to a new electoral system whereby we will cease to end up with majority governments elected by increasingly small minorities of the electorate, or minority governments where the relative strength of the parties in the legislature does not reflect their share of the popular vote.

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Thursday, September 06, 2012

Notes on the Quebec election

Greetings from sunny Calgary, Alberta, where I am getting set to talk about French-as-a-second-language education policy at a language policy conference.  This is in some respects a peculiar venue from which to blog about the Quebec election results, and yet in others it seems perfect.  Here's why:

Like many, I was rather baffled in the final days of the election campaign about what might unfold on Tuesday night.  If you read the polls, it looked like the Liberals were in free-fall, and that we could expect anything from a slim PQ majority to a freakish CAQ minority government, if the collective electorate suddenly moved Orange Crush-like to a new option, facing no better alternatives.  It was actually, in some ways, like what pollsters predicted might happen in Alberta with the Wildrose Alliance.

And yet, when the dust cleared, we were left with a slim PQ minority government, less than 1% of the popular vote above the Liberals, and the CAQ doing particularly well in the region around Quebec City and the south shore, but only pulling a more modest number of seats with their share of the vote.  In other words, we got what might be considered a completely predictable, rational result if you ignored the polls.  The Liberals held on to far more seats than expected, doing particularly well in both anglophone and francophone Montreal-area ridings.  The PQ took many seats, but only a modest share of the vote, which lines up with what we have been seeing about support for sovereignty.  And the CAQ pulled in the ADQ/ Creditiste/Union Nationale smaller-community, semi-rural vote, plus a number of disaffected voters who wanted change but didn't like the two main parties.  It's not what the polls entirely predicted, but it was a typical election result after a multi-mandate government that had grown unpopular.

One thing that leaps out at me from both this election, and the recent Alberta and Ontario elections is the decreased reliability of polls as a good indicator of incumbent party support.  I am starting to wonder if there is a chill effect on people willing to tell a pollster that, despite the media narrative, they plan to stick with the relatively unpopular status quo.  It would certainly help explain what we have seen recently with the provincial Liberal vote in Ontario and Quebec, and the Conservatives in Alberta.

And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the popular vote to seat ratio highlights, once again, the need for electoral reform.

I hope to have more to say about this election in the weeks to come, but for now, I just wanted to get a few quick ideas up - and return to actual content-based blogging!


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