Language cops have a fight on their hands

Legal battle over son getting a bilingual education has made the language issue a civil rights matter

TORONTO—The education of seven-year-old Simon Miller-Vadeboncoeur will change Quebec.

For the first time, his parents — two francophones — have launched a legal fight for the right to send their child to an English-language school. Two more couples are considering legal action.

This case changes the language issue from politics to a matter of civil rights.

“We want our son to be fully bilingual,” said Simon’s father, Pierre, in a telephone interview this week. “It’s important for his future. Everything internationally is in English, like the Internet. We want him to get the best tools possible to make a living.”

Under Quebec’s language laws, only children who have at least one parent who received an English education in Canada are entitled to English-language public education. The children of francophones and immigrants, even anglophone ones, cannot attend English-language schools. Immigrants have fought against this discrimination for years without success.

Two more francophone couples are preparing court challenges too, says Simon’s lawyer, civil rights activist Brent Tyler of Montreal.

“I’m a target of discrimination,” said Simon’s father. “Because I haven’t been educated in English my child is denied his rights. I have to fight. I have no choice. This is not about politics. This is about freedom.”

Of course, wealthy Quebecers have always enjoyed the freedom to send their children to private schools in any language. Hypocritically, all of Quebec’s major political and business leaders, including its separatists, are bilingual. So are their children.

This is a matter of record.

For instance, in an interview in 1991 in the Financial Post after leaving the Progressive Conservatives to start the Bloc Quebecois, Lucien Bouchard told me: “I think we should also speak English. We must master English to do business. I will insist that my children speak perfect French and perfect English.”

That attitude annoys Pierre and other francophones because their children do not have such an opportunity.

“Bouchard’s wife is American, I believe,” he said. “His children are bilingual. Other wealthy francophones can send their children to private schools. The law should change. Forcing us to send our children to French-language schools amounts to discrimination based on financial circumstances.”

This development is fascinating for another reason. These francophones are saying they are victims of language laws supposedly designed to benefit them. For years, supporters of language restrictions have argued that without controls the French language and culture in North America will disappear.

Pierre says that’s simply not true. Bilingualism is not a loss, it is a gain.

“I don’t believe he will lose his French culture. He will know the English culture better. We live in French at home. My son will never lose his French. It’s his mother tongue,” he said.

Tyler took the couple through the torturous procedure of applying for an exemption, being refused and getting a court to force the Ministry of Education to let Simon stay in English school until this case is decided.

It is a challenge under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

“We are saying that English-language schools are institutions dispensing a public service and a patrimony belonging to all Quebecers. We’re saying francophone citizens cannot have more, or less, access to public services than others.”

The ramifications of the case are huge, both legally and politically.

It is interesting to note that Liberal Leader Jean Charest may jump on this bandwagon. He’s smart if he does.

Reports are that he actually stated recently that he feels all children in Quebec should attend bilingual schools from the age of six onward.

That would be a big ballot-box winner among enlightened francophones.

Simon’s father guessed that there is broad-based support for what he is doing.

“Fifty per cent of francophone parents would want bilingual education for their children,” he guessed. “Generally, everyone is very happy and congratulates us. They tell us to keep going.”

But more support is needed. Court cases are expensive.

These parents are not wealthy. If they were, they would not have to go to court to fight for their child’s right to be bilingual. They would, like Bouchard and Parizeau, merely send their kids to bilingual private schools.

To help them, a fledgling francophone organization calling itself Citizens for Open Schools hopes to create a grassroots movement to fight for freedom of choice. They need money and support.

And they sure deserve it. My cheque for $ 1,000 is already in the mail.

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