'English is the key': Controversy in Quebec as more francophones choose English CEGEPs

During a convention this weekend, Parti Québécois delegates will debate and possibly vote on a resolution to cut funding to English colleges, known as CEGEPs, because they are attracting too many non-anglophones.

Parti Québécois delegates will debate and possibly vote on resolution to cut funding to English CEGEPs

Dawson college CEGEP student Jana Abdul-Rahim poses outside the college in Montreal, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Simon Bérubé loves Quebec, its culture, French language and people, but he and his parents decided the best thing he could do for his future was to enrol in one of the province's English-language junior colleges.

Bérubé, 18, is a francophone and as such was not allowed to attend English primary or secondary school because of the province's Bill 101 language law.

But he and a growing number of his peers are choosing to attend Quebec's pre-university English junior colleges, which are not subject to the law.

"Some people want to travel, experience things in other parts of the world and English is the key," Bérubé, who comes from Quebec's Eastern Townships, said in an interview.

English junior colleges are in such a delicate position that some of them have an unwritten agreement with the Quebec government to avoid advertising their programs in francophone media or directly recruiting in French high schools unless specifically invited to do so.

During a convention this weekend, Parti Québécois delegates will debate and possibly vote on a resolution to cut funding to English colleges, known as CEGEPs, because they are attracting too many non-anglophones.

If the PQ wins the fall 2018 election, further limiting access to English-language education could be part of its agenda.

"Anglophone [colleges] shouldn't be an open bar," PQ Leader Jean-Francois Lisée recently told reporters.

It's unclear whether Lisée supports the idea himself or brought it up in order to appease a restless base before Saturday's confidence vote on his leadership.

Quebec recently celebrated 40 years of the adoption of the Charter of the French Language, which paved the way to the francisation of the provincial government, businesses and education system. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Identity politics

Quebec's English community is used to having its institutions threatened by political parties trying to get votes, said Geoffrey Chambers, vice-president of an anglophone advocacy group.

"It's identity politics," said Chambers, who is with the Quebec Community Groups Network. "I think it's pandering to a very bad instinct."

Bérubé said he fully supports Quebec's language laws, but doesn't think they should extend to the CEGEP system.

"French is part of Quebec," said the second-year Dawson College student. "And if the French language is lost then the French culture in North America is basically lost and that's something people have to understand.

"But English is important to learn if you want to have a good job."

The CEGEP system was created in the late '60s and the schools offer two-year pre-university programs.

In Quebec, high school ends after Grade 11 and students then enrol in a CEGEP. University programs for Quebecers are therefore three years instead of four as in the rest of the country.

Government statistics reveal the percentage of CEGEP students from the French system enrolling in English colleges has doubled from five per cent in 1993 to 10 per cent in 2015.

Those working for English CEGEPs know to lay low as not to attract attention.

Marianopolis College, for instance, a private anglophone CEGEP in Montreal, refuses to say how many francophone students it has enrolled.

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée says if he becomes premier, he will curtail funding for English-language CEGEPs. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Dawson, a CEGEP of 8,000 students located in downtown Montreal, wouldn't give its number either.

Donna Varrica, a spokeswoman for the college, said there is an "informal" agreement dating back 20 years that her institution won't advertise its programs in francophone media or actively market to French high schools.

Chambers said he's not surprised.

"There are lots of practices that are just conflict avoidance," he said. "If you get a message from the minister saying this is not what they want you to do — don't do it. It's not like Dawson needs more students."

In fact, English schools like Dawson aren't able to recruit as many students as they can because enrolment is capped, unlike in the French system, Chambers said.

"Our [colleges] are already subject to a strangulation device. Enrolment should respond to the demand, but it doesn't. Consequently, the acceptance threshold is creeping up."

Jana Abdul-Rahim, 17, is a newly accepted student at Dawson. Born in Quebec to Lebanese immigrants, she was also barred from attending English high school.

Jana Abdul-Rahim, who was only permitted to attend French-language elementary and high schools, chose an English CEGEP because she says she wants to go to law school. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"The first couple of years in high school I thought I would stick to French college," she said. "Afterwards I realized I wanted to go to law school."

"I plan on going into international law and when you're working with the United Nations and similar organizations, English is more the language to use."

Chambers said if the PQ members don't vote to cut funding to English CEGEPs over the weekend, they will likely keep trying to restrict access to English-language education.

"They are creative," he said about the PQ. "I think what you have to be worried about is the fact they want to do such a thing at all."