«« accès à l'école anglaise

English in hot demand

More and more francophone parents buck school restrictions

ALLISON HANES

Montreal Gazette Monday, March 11, 2002


Since her daughter was born, Manon Michel has tried to expose her as much as possible to the English language.

"I've always tried to let her listen to a bit of television in English," explained the Quebec City-area mother of two - 4-year-old Médérique and 2-year-old Philippe - with a third baby on the way. "I even sent her to an English class for little ones where they play with blocks."

As a francophone dissatisfied with her own proficiency in her second language, Michel dreams of raising her children to be bilingual. She believes the best way to do so is to school them in English.

With no right under Quebec's language laws to register Médérique in an English kindergarten this fall, Michel took matters into her own hands. She persuaded the proprietor of an English-language private school to open its doors in the capital region this fall.

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The fact that Quebec City is getting its first and only

English-language private school this year and that 210 students enrolled on the first weekend illustrates a startling trend emerging across the province. Twenty-five years after Bill 101 restricted access to English schooling, demand for it is on the rise.

Enrolment is up in the public system, climbing steadily for almost a decade. In the private sector, English schools have opened in Candiac, Drummondville, Victoriaville and now Quebec City, while calls for such schools come from Trois-Rivières, Thetford Mines and Sherbrooke.

Legal challenges for access to English schooling are winding their way through the courts.

And in all cases, the charge is led - not by anglophones, not by new immigrants - but by francophones.

It's confounding, it's complicated and in Quebec where everything to do with language is politicized, it's certainly controversial.

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If a growing number of francophone Quebecers are choosing to school their children in English it raises the question: why?

For Marie-Claude Lacombe, bringing up her children bilingual is the most she can do as a parent to secure a bright future for her children.

"It's important that my children be able to speak English. Before it was a bonus; now it's a necessity," she said. "In the world of work, if they want to travel, it's important to speak English."

Marie-Claude Lacombe will send her daughters, ages 4 and 2 ,to École Vision School in Quebec City next year because the French public-school system offers only a few hours of instruction in English a week - and not right away.

Her views seem out of sync with the philosophy behind Bill 101, which was designed to protect and promote French in Quebec.

But perhaps she is the by-product of a law that has come full circle. Lacombe is confident enough in her language and culture that her focus is on expanding her children's horizons.

"At school it will be English and at home it will be French," she said. "It will be francophones who go to the school, so they will still be exposed to French culture."

For Manon Michel, also, the old fears about the loss of French fail to strike a chord.

"I really don't think my child will be assimilated," she said. "Au contraire, I think it will open doors."

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Quebec's language law was drafted to bolster the French language and culture against the ocean of English in North America.

Part of the aim of Bill 101 was to steer new immigrants' children, who tended to learn English, into the French school system so that they would swell the number of students, grow up speaking the language and counter its erosion.

The law diminished the number of students in English schools, with the ratio of students in French schools to English schools rising to 90.4 to 9.6 in 1990-91, from 83.3 to 16.7 in 1976-77.

But since then, enrolment in English schools has slowly rebounded - a phenomenon that some segments of Quebec society perceive as a threat to a quarter-century of progress in the buttressing of French. Statistics provided by the Education Department show that for the ninth consecutive year, the share of students in French public primary and secondary schools has declined to 89.4 per cent in 2000-01 from 90.4 per cent in 1992-93. Meanwhile, the English-language system has seen its share of students grow over the same period to 10.6 per cent from 9.6 per cent.

Although these changes appear minute, they represent thousands of students.

What alarms language hard-liners is that if the trend continues, the share of students in the English system in 25 years is predicted to be 16 per cent - exactly what it was the year that Bill 101 was introduced.

This was decried recently in a series of newspaper articles by Jean Dorion. Dorion was a senior aide to the Parti Québécois minister Gérald Godin, who brought in Bill 101, and a onetime president of the Société St. Jean-Baptiste de Montréal.

Robert Maheu, director of statistics and quantitative study at the Education Department, is at a loss to explain the upswing.

But he offered this hypothesis: more francophones are marrying anglophones, expanding the pool of children who inherit access to the English system.

"It's possible that we have a larger number of couples like that," he said. "The knowledge of French has become more important in Quebec, notably because of Bill 101. Maybe because of Bill 101, there is a higher level of bilingualism and a higher level of bilingual (marriages) and there are more couples sending their children to English school."

English-language school boards are feeling the squeeze. For example, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, covering Laval and the north shore, has opened three schools to accommodate 1,000 new students over the past two years. In Quebec City, the Central Quebec School Board has been scrambling to deal with an unanticipated 7-per-cent jump in enrolment this year.

"We have no idea why," board general manager John Cyr said.

The Mississquoi Institute, a Montreal public- policy think-tank, revealed in a study released last month that the number of students identified as francophones in English public and private schools grew by 1,000 this year. That figure caps off a decade during which the numbers have nearly doubled - growing to 19,235 this year from 10,362 in 1991.

If there were no Bill 101, there would probably be far more, said Brent Tyler, the president of the English-language-rights group Alliance Quebec and private-practice lawyer who has launched many challenges of the laws restricting access to English education.

While most of Tyler's clients are anglophones or new immigrants, a surprising number are francophones, he said.

For some, access to English schooling is a matter of principle, Tyler said. Others would be content if the quality of English instruction in French schools were high enough to give their children a good grounding in their second language.

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Josée Turmel, a Quebec City francophone, jumped at the chance to send her oldest son to an English kindergarten in suburban Sainte-Foy this year because she knows children pick up new languages more easily at a young age.

Through a grandmother, Turmel's two children have inherited the right to enter the English school system.

"It's indispensible for when you enter the work force later on, whether you live in Quebec, whether you leave or whether you live in Montreal," Turmel said.

But since she doesn't want her son's immersion in English to come at the expense of his proficiency in his mother tongue, she will switch him to an English private school next year where she feels the French instruction is stronger and where the students will be mainly francophones like him.

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While enrolment in English public schools is steadily climbing, demand for English private schools is booming.

Perhaps no one has witnessed the trend more closely than Yvon Courcy, the founder and president of École Vision School, which will open in Quebec City.

He started his first private "English school for francophones" in Drummondville in 1995 to bring up his own children trilingual.

The curriculum at École Vision is taught primarily in English, with classes in French and Spanish.

Even at a cost of more than $5,000 a year before transportation costs, it's been a hit in Drummondville, with 200 students enrolled this year - as has a second school in Victoriaville, where there are 112 students.

In one weekend, 210 students signed up for the 300 spots in the Quebec City school, even with a $200-per-child registration fee.

"We have two telephone lines and they haven't stopped ringing for three days," a chuckling Courcy said after the first open house for the new school. And the E-mail account has been bombarded, too.

It doesn't surprise Courcy; he knows the demand is out there. "It's of great concern to Quebec francophones that their children remain francophones, but that they be able to speak English and other languages fluently. We know very well that classes in English don't work very well. To really learn a language, you have to live it. You have to be active in it."

Yvon Robert has witnessed the same phenomenon.

The general manager of Kinderville Private Schools on the South Shore of Montreal said he also gets calls from across Quebec asking for one of the bilingual Montessori schools to come to their community.

"Soon, Mr. Courcy and I are going to have to sit down with a map," he said, only half joking. "I think there are even more parents out there. People have to know these schools exist, and once they do, there will be an even greater demand."

Kinderville, which started as a group of bilingual daycare centres, has two primary schools: one in Candiac with 200 students, the other in Brossard with 90.

Ninety per cent of the students are francophones, Robert said.

A spokesman for Education Minister Sylvain Simard said the number of students attending English private primary schools across Quebec grew 37 per cent in five years - from 1,603 in 1994-95 to 2,196 in 1999-2000.

This figure is particularly explosive and has ignited outrage among language hawks inside and outside the PQ government.

Which is why, perhaps predictably, École Vision School's arrival in Quebec City did not go unremarked. Language hawks burned up the phone lines on local radio talk shows warning against the danger of assimilation.

Turmel bristled at the suggestion.

"I find that attitude ridiculous," she said. "It's not by learning other languages and cultures that you are going to forget your own," she said. "By learning English, my son is not going to become a little anglophone. His life will still be in French because he lives in Quebec."

Much ink was also spilled by political columnists deploring a crack in Bill 101 that gives children who have spent only one year in a private English school a foot in the door of the English public system.

The crack has a multiplier effect because it also gives brothers and sisters, not to mention the next generation, coveted eligibility.

Simard spoke out only last week about the threat the practice poses to the strength of French, saying the language will be lost in 25 years at this rate.

Nicolas Girard, Simard's spokesman, said there is no data on how many students sneak in using the loophole, but the provincial government is alarmed enough to slam the door shut with a legislative amendment this spring.

"If parents want to send their children to an English private school, that's one thing," Girard said, "but if they are using the loophole it must be stopped."

Courcy at École Vision School is not worried that changing the law will stop the flow of students to his private schools - quite the opposite.

"I am in agreement with the government," he said. "I hope they do pass this law. I did not found this school to give people access to public schools. I founded it out of profound belief."

Parents send their children to his schools for the program, and once they start there, few leave, he said.

"We have a re-enrolment rate of 98 per cent. We don't want people to come to us just to get a certificate of eligibility."

Liberal leader Jean Charest indicated he's not comfortable with the practice.

"There's a principle in law that says you shouldn't try to do indirectly what you're not allowed to do directly," he said.

Manon Michel said she doesn't believe that the government should subsidize people trying to thwart the language laws.

But others say the province's attitude is elitist because it means that only francophones who can afford the tuition at English private schools - which can range from $5,000 to $10,000 - get the opportunities bilingualism affords.

Robert, at the Kinderville schools, said many parents scrimp and save to afford the school fees.

"Some of our students come from families with means, but others are the children of ordinary workers," he said. "They all recognize that to make a good living, their children will need to be bilingual,"

Turmel, who sits on a parents' committee at Quebec City's École Vision School, said that when the school opens, perhaps those with means should look at creating scholarships or bursaries for poorer students.

"I see it as an investment, but for some parents it's a great sacrifice," she said. "I don't want my children to ever be limited in anything they do by language."