Quebeckers push for fully bilingual schools


Like a lot of women in two-career marriages, Montreal lawyer Nina Fernandez wants to be sure her husband can participate fully in rearing and educating their child. But she's a Francophone married to an American. And because neither she nor her husband was educated in English in Canada, their son must, by law, attend a French school.

"This keeps my spouse totally out of the picture when it comes to helping with the homework," Ms. Fernandez says. "He can't attend the PTA meetings. If his kid is having problems in school, he can't come talk with the teachers about it."

The situation is enough to make her want to take action. She and about 300 other young movers and shakers are calling for an end to the current "separate but equal" system of school boards segregated along linguistic lines. This group, organized as the Greater Quebec Movement (GQM), wants to see a fully bilingual unitary system instead.

Such a move would buck a decades old linguistic tradition fueled by the separatist movement, which allows for separate English and French schools. But some argue the time has come to open the door wider to bilingualism for English and French speakers alike, who both stand to benefit.

Giuliano d'Andrea, a Montreal businessman and one of the movement's leaders, says there is precedent for this. "In the Dante Quarter [of Montreal], during the 1950s and 1960s, there were integrated schools that turned out thousands of graduates, fully bilingual."

Currently there are 1.1 million kindergarten, primary, and secondary school students in Quebec. 91 percent are in 60 Francophone school districts, with another 9 percent in nine Anglophone districts. Under a unified system there would be a joint board in each district.

For English speakers, a unified system would mean graduating with greater employment opportunities, an issue at the heart of the call for reform.

"Most graduates from English schools don't stay in Quebec," Fernandez says flatly. "They don't have the tools to stay. They can't compete with French speakers."

An estimated 300,000 Anglophones, many of them professionals, have left Quebec in the last two decades. English schools in Quebec offer a lot of instruction in French, including "immersion" programs that spend up to 80 percent of instruction time in French. But this is not necessarily enough for full bilingualism.

"The want ads in the papers are all for bilingual employees," says Marcus Tabachnick, chairman of the Lester B. Pearson School Board on the western end of Montreal and a defender of the current "linguistic" school boards. That may not be a politically correct thing to say, he adds, "but it's a fact in Quebec."

It's not clear that French schools, where English instruction is limited, are preparing young people for the real world either.

French schools start English instruction in Grade 4, with two hours a week. Next year, English will start in Grade 3. In secondary schools, students have four class periods of English per week.

Situations like Fernandez's illustrate one of the problems with the current system. Born in New York of a Haitian mother and a Spanish father, she came to Montreal with them at age 3 and was educated in French schools. After a few years in Chicago, where she met and married her husband, she returned to Montreal in the late 1980s to complete her education - in French.

A 1977 law, called the Charter of the French Language, is the reason her son had to attend a French school. It restricts access to English public schools to children with a parent or sibling schooled in English in Canada. In practice, it channels immigrant children into French schools.

Fernandez's son is growing up bilingual. But not all the "new Quebecers" have an English-speaking parent to close the gap left by what many see as insufficient English instruction in French schools.

"French is the dominant language," Fernandez says, "but English is the language of business." At certain top levels, "the opportunities are in English." Her vision is of "a school system where the kids are given all the tools they need to compete" in both languages.

Mr. Tabachnick, the school board chairman and a businessman, sees it differently. "Young people leave this province because the opportunities aren't there." The jobs aren't there, he says, because political uncertainty in the province makes companies reluctant to invest. The government's continuing flirtation with independence tends to make the business community nervous. Meanwhile, however, English schools have to prepare their students to work in French, and Tabachnick insists, "Overall, the English system hasn't done a bad job."

But why have English schools at all if up to 80 percent of instruction is in French? Among other things, says Tabachnick, "We can offer mother-tongue English-learning, which the French schools cannot." Moreover, he says, in a unified board, Anglophones would be a small minority.

For the time being, the GQM tries to advance its cause through TV interviews and contributions to local papers. Its fiercest opposition has come from the English-language establishment. For now, says Deepak Awasti, GQM director, the campaign is a matter of "guerrilla warfare."

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