Dawson College students, staff say everyone loses when CEGEP becomes pawn in Quebec language war

The CAQ government has halted a long-planned investment to increase space at Montreal’s overcrowded Dawson College, saying it wanted to prioritize francophone institutions. Students and staff at Dawson say the move punishes all Quebecers.

Innovative student-run medical clinic victim of CAQ’s decision to scrap long-planned expansion

Students and teachers at Dawson College in Montreal say using Quebec's linguistic divide as an excuse to cancel a planned expansion is unfair. (CBC News)

Students and staff at Montreal's Dawson College say the CAQ government's decision to suspend a long-planned expansion of the CÉGEP will not only increase overcrowding, but also rob the health-care system of a planned student-run medical clinic that would've served thousands of patients each year.

The CAQ government announced earlier this week it was putting the planned $100-million project on hold.

"There's a limited capacity to build new infrastructures. We have many projects in other colleges," Premier François Legault said Tuesday defending the decision.

"I think that if we have to choose a priority, it's better to expand French colleges before adding capacity to Dawson," he continued.

Quebec Premier François Legault, speaking to reporters during a news conference at the legislature in Quebec City earlier this week, said he wanted to prioritize French-language CEGEPS for expansion. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

"This was really a bombshell announcement, something that the Dawson community feared," Alexandrah Cardona, president of Dawson's Student Union, told CBC in an interview.

Many in Quebec's anglophone community believe the CAQ's reversal was a political decision, designed to appease nationalist voters and columnists who fear the "anglicization" of Montreal.

Liberal leader Dominique Anglade told reporters Thursday at the National Assembly that the flipflop on Dawson was "a deliberate act to divide Quebecers."

The head of the Quebec Community Groups Network, Marlene Jennings, even went so far as to describe the decision as "bullshit' in an interview earlier this week on CBC's Radio Noon.

"We're being told that we're not welcome here unless we shut up, unless we assimilate, and that the government will take every measure possible to put the squeeze on our community," Jennings said.

For students and staff at Dawson, the decision will affect their everyday lives, bringing continued overcrowding and missed opportunities.

Innovative medical clinic sacrificed

Tim Miller, a Dawson faculty member in the physiotherapy technology department, has been deeply involved in planning for the expansion. Miller is part of something called the Interprofessional Education Pedagogy project.

It's an initiative that has Dawson students from different medical disciplines learning and working together.

"There's been research on this approach that actually proves that the quality of care for the patient increases when these students then go to the workforce," Miller told CBC in an interview.

Tim Miller, a Dawson faculty member in the physiotherapy technology department, said that cancelling this project will mean the loss of a planned student-run medical clinic that could have helped thousands of patients each year. (CBC News)

The project includes students training to be nurses, as well as technologists in diagnostic imaging, ultrasound, physiotherapy, radiation oncology and social work — all health professionals Quebec sorely needs right now.

Currently each of these programs is working in different spaces, some forced to rent space off-campus.

A centrepiece of the project the CAQ has now suspended was to be a clinic that would bring them all together to serve real patients.

"We'd be able to provide the patients an X-ray, if they needed an ultrasound, if they needed to get blood tests done, or a vaccine," Miller said.

"This was all set up to be housed in this new project and to invest in the community to be able to give back immediately," he continued.

"We had planned to have thousands of patients per year come through the clinic," he said.

Miller said without the new space that won't happen. He lamented the fact the clinic seems to be collateral damage in Quebec's ongoing squabbles about language.

"It's always coming down to this language debate," Miller said.

"It's unfortunate that it's got into that realm, when really it's about pushing the students towards helping Quebec and Quebec health-care system," he added.

The overcrowding is real

Cardona from the students union said Dawson deals with overcrowding every day.

"This is not the type of building you can walk into without rubbing shoulders with someone," she said.

"To give you an idea of what this might look like if you were to try to film movement in the hallway, you wouldn't see the white on the floor in between classes," Cardona said.

"And the classrooms are uncomfortably small," she added.

Dawson Student Union president Alexandrah Cardona told CBC that overcrowding is already a serious problem at Dawson. (Dawson Student Union)

Cardona said COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem.

"It might have been a little bit uncomfortable prior to the pandemic to be in such small classrooms with 40 other students. But now, that is a very severe stress," Cardona said.

It's why Cardona was particularly offended by Francois Legault's assertion that the project would "add capacity" to Dawson, or even that it can be called an "expansion" at all.

"That is not just misleading. I would go as far as to say that's a falsehood. I was really actually quite shocked at that statement," Cardona said.

Cardona said the entire goal of the project is simply to bring more space, but not more students.

"Dawson has never within the last decade attempted to increase admissions. In fact, it had no space to do so. And it has never attempted to lobby the government to increase admissions," she said.

The Education Ministry has told Dawson that a final decision on the fate of the project will come in the spring. Until then it has encouraged Dawson to rent more space if necessary.

Cardona said the project is urgent.

"This project was to to come to culmination around seven years from now," Cardona said. "So if we're cancelling it now, and we're in this position now, what happens in seven years, 10 years, 15 years?" 

"That's a very scary prospect," she said.

Not about language

Both Cardona and Miller say it's misguided of Legault to use the language issue and support for Francophone institutions as a justification to scuttle the project at Dawson.

Miller noted graduates of Dawson medical programs serve the entire province.

"We feel that this building was going to provide attractive, innovative space to bring in some new students who would not necessarily maybe come into this profession," he said.

"And we all know right now we're starving for these types of people to work in the health-care system," Miller added.

"The French language is very much alive in our institution," Cardona said.

"This is not some anglophone hive mind or anglophone colony in the middle of the city of Montreal," Cardona said.

"Dawson graduates and Dawson students make extremely important contributions to Quebec society, and they integrate well in Quebec society," she said.


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