Canada: Quebec parents take language rights case to top court

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Dec 16 16:47:07 UTC 2008

Quebec parents take language rights case to top court

OTTAWA–The Quebec government is violating the constitutional rights of
immigrant parents by denying their children access to English-language
public schools, the Supreme Court of Canada was told today. And worse
than that, said lawyer Brent Tyler, the policy could threaten the
long-term viability of the English school system by eroding its
student base. Tyler reasoned that if all immigrants are directed to
French public schools, the only source of new students for the English
system will be interprovincial migration. But statistics show there is
actually a net out-migration of anglophones from Quebec, he noted.
That leaves immigration as the only way for the English minority in
the province to renew itself.

"If you accept the argument of the Quebec government, you are cutting
to zero, for all practical purposes, any source or replenishment,"
Tyler told the high court. It's the latest in a series of cases since
the former Parti Quebecois government first brought in legislation in
the 1970s limiting access to English schooling. At issue this time is
Bill 104, enacted in 2002 to close a loophole that allowed immigrants
– as well as some native-born francophones – to skirt the rules and
send their children to English schools anyway.

Over the years, parents began enrolling their kids in so-called
``springboard" schools, private English institutions that received no
funds from the provincial government and thus were exempt from the
rules covering the public system. After spending some time – often as
short as a single year – in private classes, the children could become
eligible to transfer to English public schools. The closure of that
route by Bill 104 sparked a court challenge by 26 families whose
children, about 100 in number, were denied access to English public

Estimates of the total number of transfers before the law was passed
range up to about 8,000. Tyler acknowledged that Quebec has the power
to regulate access to its education system. But a blanket ban on
allowing any springboard students into English public schools goes too
far and violates minority language guarantees in the federal Charter
of Rights, he said. Lawyers for the provincial government maintained
the Charter must be read in the context of the unique social and
historical circumstances of Quebec, where the majority francophone
culture feels threatened by the English sea surrounding it in the rest
of North America.

The Supreme Court ruled in the past that protection of the French
language and culture are valid legislative goals for Quebec. It should
uphold that principle in this case, said Benoit Belleau, one of the
lawyers representing the province. Colleague Francis Demers went
further, saying newcomers to the province shouldn't be able to
purchase access to English public schools by paying tuition for a year
 or two at a private school. "It's really an issue of buying a
constitutional right" said Demers.

The federal government has tried to straddle the delicate issue,
arguing that the Charter of Rights is national in scope but the exact
"models" of minority language rights can vary by province. "The
situation of the francophone minority outside Quebec cannot be
compared to the situation of the anglophones minority in Quebec," said
federal lawyer Claude Joyal. His written brief urged the court to
avoid simplistic criteria and set guidelines for provincial
administrators to take into account in assessing eligibility for
English schooling.
The bottom line of the federal brief was that the claims of some of
the 26 families should be rejected, but others should be upheld based
on the particular legal issues raised. The Supreme Court is expected
to take several months to hand down a judgment.

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