Special to the National Post June 4, 2010 – 7:40 am
Last summer, after close to 20 years in The Netherlands running the Dutch campus of a top U.S. university, I returned home to Montreal to accept the post of Director General of Marianopolis College. Three of our children returned with me and my wife, the fourth remaining at university in Amsterdam. Bringing children ages 10 to 16 and a Dutch wife to Canada was a challenge, but I underestimated how difficult it would be to bring them to Quebec.
A year later, I am increasingly concerned about Quebec and its direction. I worry — as a father, as the leader of one of the province’s top higher-education institutions and as a global citizen — that Quebec is moving opposite to global trends.
For example, on Wednesday, the provincial government unveiled its response to the recent Supreme Court of Canada judgement declaring Bill 104 unconstitutional.
Bill 104 amended Bill 101 — Quebec’s French Language Charter — to prevent parents not educated in Canada in English from securing eligibility for their child to attend English schools after spending one year at an un-subsidized English private school. The high court gave Quebec a year to find another way to plug that loophole, while protecting Charter rights. The Quebec National Assembly’s response, Bill 103, further limits access to English schooling.
This has happened despite the fact that the English community has evolved significantly while I was abroad. There is an openness to learning French that didn’t exist when I left in 1991. Graduates of English schools are increasingly fluent in both French and English, and the bridges that have been built between different ethnic communities are remarkable.
Yet, when I speak with the university-bound students at Marianopolis, many of whom attended francophone high schools, and with the academic leaders of Quebec’s French and English colleges and universities, it is clear: The brain drain out of the province persists.
Worse still, this flight of talent and economic prowess is not being replaced by immigrants: Only 18 percent of all immigrants to Canada come to Quebec, too few for a province with almost a quarter of the nation’s population.
Quebec’s auditor-general was the latest to call attention to immigration-related shortcomings, in his May 12 report to the National Assembly. In response, no less an authority than Quebec Immigration Minister Yolande James warned that making it a priority to recruit immigrants who speak French — the current policy — limits Quebec’s options.
Meanwhile, globally minded francophone and allophone students are choosing to attend English-language Cegep (as Quebec’s unique college system is called) at English schools at the first moment they are legally allowed to, when the Bill 101 restrictions are lifted after high school. Many stay in the province due to Quebec’s unreasonably low tuition, funded by the highest taxes in North America, but eventually they pay their taxes elsewhere when their careers take them outside the province.
Despite our high taxes, which are equivalent to those in socialist Holland, the services in Quebec are far fewer and less robust than they are in Holland: Health insurance, social welfare and the general infrastructure of the province seem to be lower here. As a hockey dad, I see many parts of Montreal. Too often, I am shocked by the poverty and crumbling roads and buildings.
Quebec’s protectionism translates not just into ill-qualified immigrants, fleeing educated people, fewer services and crumbling infrastructure, but into a society that is out of synch with the rest of the world.
Keeping in mind the undeniable decline of the French language worldwide, let’s compare Quebec’s language policy with that of The Netherlands. The Dutch welcome English as the international language. U.S. and English TV shows are never dubbed, but subtitled; most music on the radio is in English; even more tellingly, universities have converted all masters programs to English-only in order to prepare the Dutch for the global economy.
Does that mean the Dutch culture or language is on the decline? On the contrary, both thrive and the Dutch enjoy a most “distinct society,” despite being surrounded by large countries.
Quebec, meanwhile, has decided that language preservation is more important than economic progress. This has many costs, and it limits the ability of young people to be global citizens.
A recent analysis by the Quebec Ministry of Finance shows the province has one of the industrialized world’s most heavily indebted economies: When considering Quebec as a nation — as some say it ought to be — it ranks a disconcerting fifth in terms of public debt as a percentage of GDP. First on the list? Greece at 102%. Canada’s debt is calculated at 69.7% of its GDP; Quebec’s is at 94%.
My sense is that we need to have the courage to admit that the world has changed since Bill 101 was introduced, as has Quebec. We need to take a fresh look at the situation, and my bet is that together we can continue to protect the French language while developing strategies to strengthen our economy and convince our young people to stay home.
Len Even is director general of Marianopolis College in Montreal.
The following opinion piece could be found at the national post here. It does a good job of showing the dilemmas afflicting the protection of French in Quebec.