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Will Syrian migrant children receive English language instruction in Quebec?

Syrian refugees can escape war — but not Quebec’s language politics


Reader advisory: If you happen to live outside of Quebec it’s entirely possible you’ll think the following story is too surreal to be true.

But it isn’t, and the reality is this: At about the same time Russia, a world class military power possessing a nuclear arsenal, was making threatening noises toward NATO ally Turkey for having shot down one of its aircraft; at about the same the British House of Commons was debating whether to join in the bombing campaign against ISIS and at about the same time Canada’s efforts to re-settle 25,000 Syrian refugees here in the middle of winter was slowly cranking into gear, one of the hottest stories out Quebec’s National Assembly examined whether the 7,300 refugees coming to this province would be obliged to send their kids to French schools.

The question of whether these children — who represent about a third of refugees coming to Quebec — would be subject to the education provisions of Bill 101, the French language charter, came up after the Lester B. Pearson School Board suggested the province allow those children to enroll in the board’s English-language schools, since student enrollment at her board was dwindling while that of its French language counterparts was booming. Board chair Suanne Stein-Day contended that an article of Bill 101 allowing immigrant children to receive English-language instruction on humanitarian grounds could be invoked by the Liberal government, her rationale being that it would be tough to argue the biggest refugee crisis since World War Two didn’t qualify as a humanitarian issue.


With the PQ that obsession is ideological. The charter was a creation of the PQ and what might be described in 21st century terms as the linguistic app for the larger operating system of an independent Quebec. However the Liberal orthodoxy when it comes Bill 101 is purely political. After all, it’s one thing to pull off selling an austerity program to Quebecers fed up with being taxed for a bloated civil service and, given how adept Quebec separatists seem at finding new ways to make their cause more irrelevant to the mainstream, it’s even safe for Quebec premier Philippe Couillard to talk about the virtues of Canadian federalism and the practicality of bilingualism.

But Bill 101 — it’s questionable effectiveness and the international embarrassments it has caused notwithstanding — remains the third rail in Quebec politics, and touching it even slightly – even for humanitarian reasons – doesn’t mean you’ll end up any less fried.

Which explains why Quebec immigration minister Kathleen Weil finally made it clear this week that while the Pearson board and other anglo school commissions could make a contribution to the effort to assist Syrian refugees coming here, teaching their kids in English really, really wasn’t one of them. And Weil went further, telling reporters that in any event, it would be difficult for a unilingual anglophone to find a job in Montreal, since mastery of French being an essential element to getting a paycheque in Canada’s second largest city.

Given French-language activists have argued the contrary for years, fretted that Montreal was a sink of English unilingualism, Weil’s comment was greeted with derision in some quarters. But the bottom line is that the Liberal cabinet (and the language hawks who perpetually circle them) can all sleep tight now that it’s been established that the children who traveled here to escape one of the world’s bloodiest war zones won’t have to endure the additional trauma of learning how to read English.

All of which brings us to the very people at the centre of the this story — the refugees themselves.

I think it a pretty safe bet that the vast majority of them have never heard of the Bill 101 or the generation’s worth of nattering that has surrounded its enforcement. In fact, a story in the National Post by colleague Matthew Fisher suggested the entire sum of knowledge of Canada possessed by many of the refugees he spoke to in the Middle East pretty much boiled down to that it was cold and far away.


(…)Montreal Gazette news columnist James Mennie can be heard weekdays at 4:35 p.m. on the Aaron Rand Show on CJAD 800.


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