T he Canadian Supreme Court has declared Quebec’s Bill 104, legislation passed in 2002 restricting students’ access to English-language public schools, as unconstitutional, and has given Quebec’s National Assembly one year to repeal the law. The ruling has been hailed as a victory for thousands of immigrant families in Quebec, who typically opt to have their children educated in English
Since Bill 104’s inception as an amendment to the Charter of the French Language, the legislation has stirred controversy. The Quebec Court of Appeal first ruled that the law was unconstitutional in 2007. The ruling was then appealed in Canada’s Supreme Court by the Quebec government. The law prevents students who have undergone one year of instruction in private English schools from entering English public schools.
During the appeal, Montreal lawyer Brent Tyler represented 25 families struggling with the law.Despite the widespread description of Bill 104 as closing a “loophole,” Tyler said he did not agree with this perspective. Instead he viewed the choice of parents to send their children to a public school after attending private school as an issue of constitutional freedom.
“The exercise of a constitutional right should never be considered a loophole,” Tyler said. “It’s a question of giving proper priority to the constitution.”
Tyler maintained that many francophone parents also choose to send their children to English schools because the quality of bilingual education is better at these schools. About a quarter of the families represented in his case were francophone, Tyler claimed.
“They want bilingual children, and the French school system is pitiful in teaching English as a second language,” Tyler said.
Enrolment in English schools has dropped in recent years. Like Tyler, the Quebec English School Boards Association, which intervened in the Supreme Court case, believed that Bill 104 is responsible for this change.
The organization wrote an online press release stating that “Bill 104 eliminates access to English schools for at least 500 students per year – primarily in the greater Montreal region. Those students are essential to our system, and the consequential impact on the French school system would be very modest.”
One of the families represented by Tyler includes Montreal mother Audrey Smith, who moved to Canada from Jamaica around two decades ago. Smith believed that the system can be fixed only if both English and French are taught equally.
“You think you’re coming to Canada, and Canada is bilingual. I figured it would be predominantly French here, but that English would be spoken and learnt by all, so that you could function well in both,” Smith said. “It’s extremely easy to fix the situation…to have French Canadians learning English where they will be able to function in English and have anglophones learning French to a point that they will function.”
While Quebec has been busy debating its language laws, the province’s demographics have also rapidly changed. Fewer Quebeckers speak English as a native language than French, but the number of allophones, those whose first language is neither French nor English, is rapidly rising. 75 per cent of recent immigrants, those who arrived between 2001 and 2006, are allophones.
Both Smith and President of the Quebec English School Boards Association Debbie Horrocks hope to be included in the process of determining what legislation might replace Bill 104.
“What a year is going to mean, I don’t know,” Horrocks said. “We don’t have to be included in the process, but we have sent a letter to Premier Charest saying we want to be part of the discussion coming up with the new legislation.”