Freeze on English CEGEP enrollment sparks squabbling at Bill 96 committee


Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade announced her party could not support the bill because it goes too far, while Parti Québécois committee member Pascal Bérubé said he cannot back the bill because it does not go far enough.

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QUEBEC — The committee examining Bill 96 clause by clause wrapped up a first round of its work Thursday, bogged down by the government’s plan to entrench in the bill a freeze on enrollment in the English CEGEP system.

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And one day after the minister responsible for French, Simon Jolin-Barrette, added a series of surprise amendments to the legislation overhauling the Charter of the French Language, the animosity that had been simmering at the committee for weeks boiled over.

Not only did Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade announce in Montreal that her party could not support the bill in its current form because it goes too far, the Parti Québécois member of the committee went the other way, saying he cannot back the bill because it does not go far enough.

“I don’t think it’s worth supporting,” Pascal Bérubé told the committee Thursday. “It’s my position. My caucus will make the final decision.”

Late Thursday, with five minutes left to go before adjournment for the legislature’s March break, the committee voted in favor of a sub-amendment proposed by Jolin-Barrette to completely freeze enrollment in the English CEGEP system by withdrawing the original 8.7 per cent growth formula .

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The Coalition Avenir Québec MNAs voted in favor of the sub-amendment, as did the lone Québec solidaire MNA, Ruba Ghazal. The two Liberal MNAs present on the committee voted against it. (The third Liberal on the committee, David Birnbaum, was at Dawson College with Anglade.)

The committee still has to vote on the overall amendment, Article 88.0.4, before it becomes official, but the government’s intention is clear.

For the veteran Liberal MNA on the committee, Hélène David, a former minister of higher education in the Couillard government, the day was bittersweet. She said the Liberals were participating in the process in good faith to improve a bill that will affect the lives of Quebecers for years.

“We were very surprised by the tabling of this amendment,” David said in an interview with the Montreal Gazette. “We did not see this coming. It was a clause that the English colleges and community had been counting on to say they would have some potential for growth.

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“They (the government) are talking about 25,000 more students in Montreal and they (the anglophone network) thought they would get a piece of the pie. It’s good for the francophone CEGEPs to have more leeway, but it can’t be by choking the anglophone CEGEPs.”

Worse than that, David said Jolin-Barrette’s enrolment-freeze amendment came right after the Liberals had agreed to beef up their own proposal to impose three French courses for all students in English CEGEPs, in the name of promoting French.

She said they felt betrayed.

“I found it very unfortunate, because we were trapped,” David said. “Would we have presented the same amendment (on courses in French)? I’m not sure. I was naïve.”

Jolin-Barrette hammered away all afternoon, questioning the Liberals’ motives. He said Anglade’s statements in Montreal proved the party had no intention of playing ball with the government in the first place.

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He said the party is true to its past and noted the Liberals voted against the original Bill 101 when it was adopted by the Parti Québécois in 1977.

“How long have you been planning to vote no?” Jolin-Barrette asked, wagging his finger at the Liberals. “You took me for a ride.

“The Liberal Party is again saying, as it did in 1977, that defending the French language is not important. It is making the same historic error today.”

The other Liberal MNA on the committee, former health minister Gaétan Barrette, then pointed out that the old Union Nationale party, which many say resembled the current CAQ in its nationalist rhetoric, also voted against Bill 101. And on the day of the vote, there were 20 PQ MNAs absent, Barrette noted.

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The mood soured further when Ghazal presented Québec solidaire’s own amendment to Article 88.

It proposed to “gradually review” CEGEP funding completely, with the objective of putting in place a funding formula by 2032 corresponding to demographic weights of the francophone and anglophone communities.

In the long run, such a plan would lead to drastic cuts in funding for Anglophone CEGEPs.

That was when David and Barrette fired back.

David accused QS of promoting “urban myths” about the English system and presenting an amendment clearly based on “unjust and false” affirmations.

She said Dawson College, with its population sardined into limited space, should have been allowed to expand because it no longer respected the ministry’s own standards.

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She wondered whether QS would want to use such a formula to fund anglophone hospitals.

“How many premiers received treatments in anglophone hospitals and said the service was excellent and everyone spoke excellent French?” David fired across the floor. “It’s dangerous to say we will finance institutions based on people’s birth certificates.”

In the final months of his life, former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau praised the care he received at the Jewish General Hospital.

“All I can say is this (motion) is pathetic,” Barrette added. “It is a radical idea from a radical party based on fallacious information.”

The committee summarizes its work March 15. Out of 201 articles in the bill, it has examined 58.

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