#NewsMatters: The National Assembly Report
English CEGEP students may pay the price for Liberal’s Bill 96 blunder
By Raquel Fletcher
Quebec students attending English CEGEPs may soon be paying the price for a political blunder that many anglophones say is as perplexing as it is frustrating.
Committee work is an important aspect of the democratic process. The article-by-article stage of the revision of a bill can take hundreds of hours and is supposed to strengthen legislation. It’s no wonder then that people are asking what went wrong in the study of Bill 96, the government’s French language reform.
Last month, the National Assembly voted in favour of an amendment proposed by Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette that will require English CEGEP students to take three classes in French. Originally, students who had attended English elementary and secondary school would be exempt, but Liberal MNA Hélène David, with the support of colleague David Birnbaum, the party’s critic for relations with English-speaking Quebecers, bafflingly moved to do away with this exemption.
Outcry from community
What followed was an outcry from the community – parents, students and CEGEP administrators deplored the fact that they were not consulted ahead of time. This modification to the future law will have very real impacts for English CEGEPs, and more importantly, for the students who attend them. A change of this magnitude to the curriculum, they said, could result in students failing the newly required courses in French, which could have an impact on their chances of getting accepted at the university of their choice. The schools also say they are not sure how to put this new requirement into practice – currently teachers are not prepared to offer classes in French.
The outrage has also led to talk of anglophones, historically Liberal voters, creating their own political party. Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade was forced to apologize: “Obviously this was done in good faith, but we have to recognize that consulting did not happen the way it should have been,” she told reporters at the National Assembly.
She then implored the government to remove the amendment. “There's not enough work that has been done, people have not been consulted, there are impacts that we haven't seen. (We) recognize that and say, ‘Okay, this is not going to work’ … Now, the ball is in the camp of the CAQ to find a solution,” said Anglade.
A “humiliating backtrack”
However, undoing the decision is not that simple. As Journal de Montréal columnist Antoine Robitaille pointed out in a recent column, an opposition party succeeding in convincing a majority government to adopt any amendment to a piece of legislation is a rare occurrence. When it happens, parties often tout it as a major victory. What he qualified as a “humiliating backtrack” for Anglade and her party, he added, is virtually unheard of.
“Who brings these amendments to the table? The Liberals. Who wants to backtrack? The Liberals. That's something,” said Parti Québécois MNA Pascal Bérubé.
The PQ and Québec Solidaire both like the amendment and want to keep it.
“I think there is a consensus in Quebec about the fact that it's a good thing that young francophones learn English, and it's a good thing that young anglophones learn French. I think it's a tool that is useful for their professional future in Quebec,” said Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. He added he would be in favour of extending its application to allow CEGEPs more time to adapt to the new curriculum.
Premier François Legault was also lukewarm to retracting the new clause, noting the amendment had been supported by all the parties. He said discussions would have to be held with the other parties about retracting the clause.
However, several days later, Minister Jolin-Barrette said he was not interested in reviewing the amendment and the committee continued its work on the bill without returning to discussion about CEGEPs.
Raquel Fletcher is QCNA's News Matters columnist on provincial affairs