Images © Ted Wright
Closing Quebec's English Schools
The Canadian Constitution and the Schools
Canadian civil-rights lawyer Brent Tyler is standing in the right foreground of the photo above, in front of some of the parents he represented before the Supreme Court of Canada in the "French Parents Case." These French-speaking parents wanted enroll their own French-speaking children in English schools, because the quality of English-language instruction in Quebec's French-language public schools varies from mediocre to bad to nonexistent. Middle-class or working-class French parents, who can't afford to send their children to the private schools that Quebec businessmen, cabinet ministers and politicians send their children to, wanted at least some of their children's publicly-funded education to be in English. They didn't get what they wanted. The Supreme Court ruled against their argument that the Quebec government discriminated against them by depriving them of freedom of choice in education. The Supreme Court upheld Quebec's hereditary rights law that restricts the right to be educated in English in Quebec to the children of parents educated in English in Quebec (and those few children who were educated in English or whose parents were educated in English elsewhere in Canada, who happen to live in Quebec).
Canada's constitution gives English and French- speaking parents the right to send their children to English or French-language schools, as long as there are enough children in the area to make a school practical. But even that limited right is true everywhere else in Canada except Quebec. In Quebec, the only children who can go to English schools are the children of Canadian citizens whose mother tongue is English. So if you're an immigrant to Quebec from the US or from England, for example, your kids can't go to an English public school. If you're a French-speaking parent from anywhere, you can't send your kid to an English public school (see above).
What about private schools? The fact is that many well-to-do French-speaking parents send their kids to expensive French private schools (expensive because they don't have a government subsidy) where English is taught well as a second language. Why? Because they know that to be successful in North America, and increasingly in Europe, you have to read, write and speak English, which is now the world's second language. The children lucky enough to get into English public schools learn both French and English well -- because the English public school administrators also know that their bilingual graduates will be able to find good jobs in Quebec or anywhere else in the world. And they do.
One section of the Canadian Constitution's Charter of Rights and Freedoms) (23.1.a) gives any citizen whose first language was English or French the right to send their children to school in their own mother tongue. When the Charter was adopted in 1982 this section had to be ratified separately by Quebec. It never was.
If section (23.1.a) had been ratified by Quebec, then an immigrant from England who became a Canadian citizen could educate his or her children in English in Quebec. Right now, all immigrant children regardless of their parent's first language have to go to French public schools in Quebec. Or their parents can send them to entirely private schools in either language, so long as those schools receive no cash support from the province. That makes those schools very expensive.
A second section (23.1.b) gives parents who were educated in primary school in French or English in Canada, and who happen to live in a province where their language is in the minority, the right to send their children to school in that language.
Another section, (23.2) is worth quoting in full:
"Citizens of Canada of whom any child has received or is receiving primary or secondary school instruction in English or French in Canada, have the right to have all their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the same language."
Under Section 23.2, a Canadian citizen living in Saskatchewan whose child has already started school in English has the right to send that child and all his or her siblings to school to the English public school system in Quebec. But an immigrant parent who was educated in English in England, and who first moves to Saskatchewan and then moves to Quebec, can't send his or her children to public school in English in Quebec Ė unless, as specified under section 23.2 of the Charter, that parent has already become a citizen and the child had already received some English education in Saskatchewan.
Now letís say that you are a hard-working and frugal immigrant parent living in Quebec. You apply for Canadian citizenship and you enroll your first child in an unsubsidized English private school in Quebec with tuition that could be as high as $15,000 a year. As soon as you become a citizen, you avail yourself of section 23.2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to enroll your other children (or even this child, now that you are a citizen), in the tax-supported English public school system. Since you are a citizen, and since your child "has received or is receiving" primary school education in English, according to section 23.2, that child and all your other children should be eligible to enroll in the English-language public school system in Quebec.
In other words, if an immigrant living in Quebec is willing and able to spend as much as fifteen thousand dollars a year to educate one of his or her children privately in English for as many years (usually three) that it takes to become a Canadian citizen, then that child and all of his or her siblings can join the tax-supported English public school system. An expensive entry fee, but nevertheless a way to bring immigrant children into the English-language education system in Quebec.
Quebec's Anti-Constitutional Law
But not according to the government of Quebec. In 2002 the government passed an amendment to the Charter of the French Language. In rough translation, it reads: "English education in a private academy that is not subsidized by the Quebec government does not count towards establishing eligibility for the English public school system, either for the child in question or for his or her siblings." And just to make certain that every entry into the English system is thoroughly blocked, an afterthought paragraph denies the right to English education for the siblings of any child who received a so-called "special certificate" which allowed them into English school because they were really incapable, either emotionally or educationally, of dealing with the French public school system.
The amendment directly contradicts section 23.2 of the Charter, which makes no distinction between privately funded and publicly funded education. The Quebec government is twisting the Charter to suit its own goals, which is to emasculate the English-language public education system in Quebec. This recent attack by Quebec on the Charter is again being fought by MaÓtre Tyler. The case was argued before the Quebec Court of Appeal in June 2006. On August 22, 2002 the court rendered its judgment -- against Bill 104 and for access to the English public school system through the unsubsidized private schools. The Quebec government immediately said it would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canda, and has succeeded in quashing the decision until the Supreme Court has made its ruling -- which will take at least three years more, and hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Needless to say, the 27 couples who fought this case on behalf of their children do not have several hundred thousand spare dollars among them, but the Government of Quebec has deep pockets and will not lack resources to prepare and present a case to the Supreme Court.
At this point the government lost a legal battle but nevertheless kept its unconstitutional school law intact. And unless an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada can be funded, the battle will be lost for lack of resources to go on. Governments have time and money on their side; private citizens have neither. Children grow older, parentsí bank accounts grow smaller, and unlike the government's lawyers, parentsí lawyers are not paid by their own tax dollars. The final outcome of this case is undecided but the purpose of Bill 104 is clear, and it is succeeding. It is an attack by Quebec on the Canadian constitution, an attack on the uniformity of law throughout Canada, an attack on the English community in Quebec, and in particular, it is a threat to the survival of the English public primary and secondary school system in Quebec.
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