Toula Drimonis: Does the CAQ even care about education?

From attacking venerable anglo universities to playing hardball with striking teachers, this government is showing callous disregard.

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It’s no secret the Quebec government has been steadily chipping away at English-language educational institutions, trying to reduce their influence and choking their funding. But the Coalition Avenir Québec’s disregard for education doesn’t appear limited to institutions and students who speak the “wrong” language.

As the teachers’ general strike keeps most Quebec public schools closed indefinitely, Quebecers — including the Liberal Opposition — are wondering why there isn’t a bigger sense of urgency from the CAQ during contract negotiations. Government representatives even took a leisurely weekend off from the negotiating table, which raises the question: Is education even a priority?

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Premier François Legault’s pleas for the strike to end focus more on the difficulties parents are burdened with while juggling childcare and work. For him, it seems, the educational system serves as a glorified daycare.

We have an education minister who, faced with dire teacher shortages, declared that “one adult per classroom” (even if unqualified) could do the job. An education minister who shed tears after the promise of a “third link” tunnel in Quebec City failed to materialize but seems unmoved by our crumbling education system and alarmingly low high school graduation rates.

Albeit generous with its own pay raises, the government continues to underfund and undermine Quebec’s educational institutions while undervaluing and underpaying teachers. With Father Knows Best arrogance, it has pushed through legislation giving new powers to the education minister to dismiss or overturn decisions made by French-language school service centres.

After pulling the plug on Dawson’s badly needed expansion, and amid the surging popularity of English-language CEGEPs among francophones and allophones, the CAQ decided — with no consultations — to cap the number of students at English-language CEGEPs. Bill 96 caused stress and planning mayhem as curriculums and budgets had to be reconfigured.

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Though experts warned such changes — at a time when students apply for university and write entrance exams — could affect their scores and chances of admission, the government ignored those concerns and moved forward with callous disregard for students’ academic success.

When the federal government allocated $9 billion in pandemic aid for post-secondary students in 2020 and transferred $940 million over two years for Quebec students, the Journal de Montréal reported the CAQ diverted that money for purposes other than what was intended, depriving students of vital support.

On Thursday, the government confirmed it is charging ahead with a devastating tuition scheme for out-of-province students — kneecapping English universities and showing purposeful disregard for the excellence of their contributions and capacity to remain competitive and innovative. In true CAQ fashion, it had neither consulted nor informed McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s of its planned assault.

This government has made clear it will recklessly use educational institutions as pawns for its culture wars, whatever the consequences. Showing disregard for venerable anglo universities, failing to consult, ignoring expert warnings, playing hardball with striking teachers — these are not the actions of a government that values education.

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And with its out-of-the-blue, exorbitant tuition hikes — $12,000 is 33 per cent more than what students from other provinces now pay — the CAQ apparently could not resist adding salt to the wound. The three anglo universities had extended an olive branch with their offer to require 40 per cent of their students to reach an intermediate level of French by the time they graduate. In response, Higher Education Minister Pascale Déry doubled down and informed them the rate must be 80 per cent.

If the government prioritized education, it would not sacrifice stellar Quebec universities on the altar of petty politics. It would not treat teachers’ salaries and educational funding as pesky expenses to be avoided. It would prioritize solutions that get kids back in classrooms ASAP.

Quality education — and access to it — should be treated as an investment and a public good to be cherished. It’s hard to imagine anyone might think otherwise. Except for Legault and his government.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X @toulastake

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