#NewsMatters: The National Assembly Report
Controversial amendment to Bill 96 left hanging during break
Modification sends shockwaves through college community
By Raquel Fletcher
The National Assembly has recessed for March break with the fate of a controversial amendment to Bill 96 hanging in the air.
The amendment, tabled by French Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette in committee, proposes to freeze enrollment levels at English CEGEPs.
It will come to a vote only when the National Assembly reconvenes sometime after March 15, but already parties are digging in their heels over two very conflicting positions.
The Parti Québécois says the bill needs to be beefed up and attempted two amendments to extend Bill 101 to the CEGEP level. Both were defeated, but many opponents of the bill say the minister’s amendment effectively does the same thing.
The CAQ government previously announced its plans to cap the number of places in English CEGEPs. Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette explained he now wants to enshrine that cap in the law.
“It’s a snapshot of the current situation,” the minister said. “The number of places in the English establishments is (currently) 17.5 per cent, so it cannot exceed 17.5 per cent.”
Move prohibits future growth
The proposed modification sent shockwaves throughout the college community because the move would effectively prohibit any future growth.
“We want to ensure a linguistic mix in English CEGEPs, but now we’re announcing that they are really going to slowly decline and become more and more restricted in their spaces because they will no longer have the right to accept even one more student (than they already have enrolled),” Liberal MNA Hélène David said in committee.
Jolin-Barrette announced this amendment to article 58 of the bill after a few days of tense back and forth between him and PQ MNA Pascal Bérubé in committee. Bérubé, attempting to convince the minister that only students who attended elementary or high school in English should attend English CEGEP, egged him on by saying he wasn’t a true nationalist.
Bérubé taunted Jolin-Barrette further when he insinuated that the minister secretly agreed with his position. He cited a Radio-Canada article that suggested the minister had been trying to drum up support inside his own caucus to extend Bill 101 to CEGEPs.
The minister denied there is dissension in the CAQ ranks. “Everybody agrees,” he said bluntly to English reporters at the National Assembly.
This proposed amendment had the effect of turning both the PQ and the Liberal Party off the bill. Bérubé insisted the minister still wasn’t taking a hard enough line when it comes to CEGEPs, while the Liberal Party said the government is going way too far.
Liberal leader Dominique Anglade said categorically her party cannot support the bill in its current form. “We believe in freedom. We believe in liberties. And what basically the CAQ government is doing is telling adults what they should be doing.”
Premier François Legault interpreted this polarization as a sign his party has found a happy medium: “I think our government, as is often the case, has a position that is balanced,” he said. “We’re going to continue to let francophones go to English CEGEPs, but we’re going to limit the number of places.”
CAQ feeling pressure from PQ
Heading into a fall election, the CAQ is trying to position itself as taking a strong stance on the protection of the French language, but it’s feeling the pressure from the PQ, according to Daniel Béland, Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
“It’s true that what they are proposing is not exactly extending the Charter of the French language to CEGEPs, but in fact will have a similar effect,” Béland said. “This is something that is problematic.”
If it’s adopted in its current form, Bill 96 will limit the CEGEP choices for francophones and allophones, which could prove to be an unpopular position, Béland explained. “That could create a backlash beyond the anglophone community.”
Finding the right balance is a tough act in politics. The government must tread carefully, he said. Or they could pay the price at the polls.
Raquel Fletcher is QCNA's News Matters columnist on provincial affairs