Schools in greater Montreal area see surge in welcome class enrolment among immigrants, refugees

More than 750 students have enrolled at the Montreal school service centre since the start of 2022, says its director of services Mathieu Desjardins.

More than 750 students have enrolled at the CSSDM since the start of the year, services director says

School service centres in the greater Montreal area are seeing an increase in enrolment for welcome classes among children of immigrants and refugees. (Anne-Louise Despatie/Radio-Canada)

The resumption of immigration and, above all, the reopening of Roxham Road at the Canada-US border, have caused the number of allophone student enrolments in greater Montreal area schools to skyrocket since the beginning of the year, according to school service centre staff.

The largest school service centre in Quebec, the Centre de services scolaires de Montréal (CSSDM), is used to welcoming newcomers throughout the school year, but the pandemic had slowed the flow of registrations.

"As soon as there's an upturn at Roxham Road, we feel it a few days, even a few weeks later," said CSSDM director of services Mathieu Desjardins. 

He says of the 210 children they welcomed in March, a third of them came from Mexico, Haiti, Colombia and Brazil. In total, there are more than 750 new registrations at the CSSDM since the start of 2022.

The number of allophone students in the Montérégie is also on the rise. The Marie-Victorin school service centre (CSSMV) has several classes d'accueil, or welcome classes, dedicated to teaching French to newcomers in Longueuil and Brossard.

"Since Roxham Road reopened, we feel like we're picking up where we left off before the pandemic," said Marie-Hélène Mathieu, an intercultural mediator at the CSSMV. 

The Marie-Victorin service centre has set up a clothing depot for families who have fled their country. (Anne-Louise Despatie/Radio-Canada)

Welcome class staff say the pandemic has made families with refugee status more vulnerable.

"With the pandemic, they are doubly vulnerable because they have been out of school for several months," said Chantale Boutet, assistant director of educational services at the CSSMV.

"Like many refugees, they have not had time to prepare for their migratory journey …. When they arrive here, they don't expect such a cold winter."

Marie-Hélène Mathieu, intercultural mediator, left, and Chantale Boutet, assistant director of educational services at the Centre de services scolaire Marie-Victorin have noted the increase of welcome enrolment at their service centre. (Anne-Louise Despatie/Radio-Canada)

With a growing number of students from immigrant backgrounds, the CSSMV wanted to improve its welcome network. Depending on children's ages, a hybrid approach may allow for more children to enter regular classes directly, especially at the start of elementary school.

"Learning a second language, francisation, is facilitated by being in a regular class [for preschool children]," Mathieu said.

For decades, welcome classes have enabled thousands of students to learn French.

The Pointe-de-l'Île school school service centre (CSSPI), in Montreal's northeast end, has also seen an influx of students with refugee status.

"For those who spend a year or two in a reception class, for our students who arrive in elementary school, it's fascinating how quickly they learn," said Réginald Fleury, academic advisor at the CSSPI. "That's our role with Bill 101. It's a duty that we accomplish every year, proudly."

Valuable expertise

Like all students in welcome class, Rabine, whose family immigrated from Côte d'Ivoire, must take an exam to assess his knowledge of French. (Anne-Louise Despatie/Radio-Canada)

Having to contend with the province's labour shortage, welcome class instructors have been called on to lend a hand in other courses throughout the pandemic.

But those instructors' expertise is invaluable, said Isabelle Bujold, a teacher at École secondaire Anjou, who has been teaching welcome classes for 13 years.

She says she hopes teachers who left those classes for regular ones will return.

"We had students who arrived via Roxham Road, who crossed America on foot, who left Brazil, students who lost members of their family on the way," she said.

"We have some experience with students who have experienced trauma."

Based on reporting by Radio-Canada's Anne-Louise Despatie