Tweaking the language laws

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Apr 6 20:04:47 UTC 2005

             Tweaking the language laws

             The court upheld the provision in Bill 101 that limits access
to English education

             JOHN GEDDES

             For Canadians outside Quebec, the province's language laws
can appear complex at best, offensive at worst. Yet there is a sort of
calm surrounding the current rules, and last week Premier Jean Charest had
to be thankful that the Supreme Court of Canada didn't upset that
precarious balance too much. In a 7-0 decision, the court ruled that
limiting access to English language schools in Quebec does not violate the
Charter of Rights and Freedoms, although the ruling did nudge Quebec
toward being more flexible when immigrants and Canadians who move to
Quebec from other provinces ask to send their children to English schools.
Had the court thrown out the restrictions, Charest might have had to
invoke the Constitution's controversial notwithstanding clause to maintain
the status quo -- and prevent Quebec's dormant linguistic volcano from
             The court ruled in two related cases. Flatly rejecting a bid
from a group of francophone parents to be allowed to send their kids to
English schools, it upheld the key provision in Bill 101 that limits
English education mainly to children whose parents were educated in
English somewhere in Canada. The idea that children from French households
must go to French school is considered a backbone protection for the
majority language in Quebec. In the second case, the court found that
Quebec should be more flexible when considering which newcomers -- whether
from other parts of Canada or foreign countries -- are permitted access to
English classrooms. The ruling said the general aim should be to
"accommodate mobility and ensure family unity."

             James Archibald, director of translation studies at McGill
University and an expert on Quebec's language policy, predicted the
court's plea for flexibility would have limited but still significant
impact. Archibald cited the hypothetical case of a child attending
French-immersion school in Vancouver, but otherwise growing up in an
English environment. If that child's family moved to Montreal, they would
routinely have been denied the right to choose English school because
their child was already being taught in French. Now, they might well be
allowed to opt for English education, considering that the level of French
fluency demanded in a French school might be higher than what their child
was used to in B.C.

             "Obviously the [sovereignist] firebrands are going to see
that added flexibility as a defeat," Archibald said. "But there's no
reason to get excited."

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