Education and jobs are among the top priorities for Quebec's Liberal government in the second half of its term, said Premier Jean Charest in his speech that launched a new legislative session on Wednesday.
In the optimistic one-hour speech, Charest laid out five priorities: education, employment, sustainable development, resource development and health care.
The big promise is equal time for English and French instruction — Grade 6 students across Quebec will spend half of their school year in intensive English training, Charest said.
"Our language is our identity, it's our strength," he said. "Our language is an instrument of freedom," he added, earning a sustained ovation from his caucus.
"There is no clash between the complete mastery of French and the learning of a second or third language.
Charest opened his speech by referring to a rash of Quebec cultural exports that have rocked the international scene, including filmmaker Denis Villeneuve's Oscar nomination for Incendies, Celine Dion's success in Las Vegas, and Arcade Fire's best album win at the Grammy Awards.
Charest pledged to create a fund that would help Quebec artists promote their work abroad. The premier was an outspoken critic of the federal Conservative government when it cut a similar program three years ago.
Charest said he'd sign new agreements with Ottawa — including one on natural gas extraction in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And he promised a deal with Ottawa to proceed with offshore gas drilling.
Charest concluded his speech with an unapologetic defence of Quebec's place in Canada.
"One fact remains: Quebecers are the co-authors of the history of this country," he said. "Canada is at its best when Quebec influences its path."
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Opposition Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois said though she's supportive of the idea of second-language instruction, she can't see how the Liberal proposal will work.
It would be "technically impossible" at this point for Quebec to find enough teachers, and at-risk students could be left behind if they are struggling already in their mother tongue, she said.
Marois described the speech as an attempt to drop the hottest political potato scalding the government: the widespread demand for a public inquiry into corruption.
Charest has seen his popularity plummet over his refusal to call a probe into allegations of malfeasance involving public officials, construction companies and crime groups like the Mafia.
Other Liberal pledges:
- A new charter for Quebec's schools that will establish a code of conduct, including referring to teachers by the more respectful, "vous," instead of the informal, "tu."
- A fiscal benefit for people aged 65 or over who want to continue working or return to work.
- The reduction of fossil fuels to 32 per cent from 38 per cent of energy consumed in Quebec, and the promotion of electric cars.
- The placing of electronic blackboards in every classroom and providing each teacher with a laptop computer.
- The creation of a Quebec cancer directorate with a mandate to reduce treatment times.