Ruling on Quebec language law gives hope to immigrant parents

Viola Vathilakis is principal of Sinclair Laird
School in Montreal. She has seen enrollment
at her school drop by half in
the seven years since the inception of Bill 104.

John Morstad for The Globe and Mail

Supreme Court strikes down law that has
blocked children from attending English-language schools

Montreal and Toronto 

For thousands of francophone and immigrant parents
in Quebec who want to send their children
to English public schools but are
barred from the system, a Supreme Court
ruling Thursday seemed to offer hope.

"This is really wonderful news, it's
a great decision," said Virender Singh Jamwal,
one of the 25 parents who fought in court
for seven years for the right to send
their kids to school in English.

But in its attempt to reach
a rare compromise in Quebec's volatile
language politics, the court may have
managed to prick nationalist sentiment
without doing much to protect
Mr. Jamwal's educational preference.

In a 7-0 decision, the court struck down
a law known as Bill 104 that, since 2002,
has blocked some 8,000 children in Montreal
 alone from attending English-language schools.

The law had closed a loophole that allowed
otherwise ineligible families to get into
the English public system by first enrolling
at least one child in an expensive,
privately funded English school.

But Thursday's ruling left Bill 104 in effect
for a year, giving the Quebec government time
to create a more supple law that would
take individual circumstances into account.

In the unanimous decision, Mr. Justice Louis LeBel
also made it clear that the province's objectives
in enacting the legislation were "important and legitimate."

The province can take another run at closing
the loophole, but it must be more carefully
tailored in reaching its objective, Judge LeBel said.

"It's essentially a tie," said Brent Tyler,
the lawyer who represented the parents.
He criticized the court for refusing to enact
the full force of its decision immediately,
given that it found the law violated
constitutional linguistic rights.

"Its been very hard to explain to my clients
what happened today," Mr. Tyler said.

Mr. Jamwal, who was among the parents
driving the Supreme Court challenge,
typifies the determination of some parents
to have their children educated in English.

After the law was passed blocking
the private school route to English schooling,
he didn't wait for the court to sort it out.
He moved his wife and three children
to Hawkesbury, Ont., where his daughter
and two sons attended English-language school.

After two years, they rejoined Mr. Jamwal
in Montreal, where the children's time
in Ontario qualified them to enroll
in the school of their choice.

"For me, the problem is solved,
but I'm really happy for the other people,
" Mr. Jamwal said.

Kevin Queenland-Smith, the son of
Jamaican immigrants, was forced into
the French system in elementary school.
Now 17, he had failed one grade and was
on the verge of flunking Grade 9 when
he dropped out. He has just completed
his diploma through an English-language
adult education program.

He hopes the ruling will help his
younger brothers, who have
their own struggles in French school.

Parents in Quebec must prove they or at
least one of their children have a link
to English schooling in Canada before
any of their children can go
to English public school.
The hurdle usually forces the offspring
of francophones and immigrants
into the French system.

The laws are designed to prevent English,
which was traditionally the first educational
choice for most immigrants,
from swamping French in Quebec.

Parents figured out that enrolling their kids
for a year or sometimes less
in English-language schools that were
private and unsubsidized could satisfy
the letter of the language law and allow them
to send their children to English public schools.

The ploy was a chief source of new students
for the Montreal English school system,
which has suffered chronic declining enrolment.

Leaders in the English school system,
which intervened in the case, implored
Mr. Charest to give them a say in any new law
and allow the system at least a fraction of new arrivals.

"We have no security for what will happen
in a year," said Angela Mancini,
chairwoman the English Montreal School Board.

"It's a double-edge sword,
but we hope the government will
take this as a nudge."

The court took more immediate action
on one front, ruling that temporary residents,
children with serious learning disabilities
and those with serious family
or humanitarian situations can attend
English or French schools.

Judge LeBel said Bill 104 was
 "total and absolute, and it seems excessive
in relation to the seriousness of the problem."

The trick for legislators will be screening out
those who are exploiting the system
to circumvent the province's orientation towards
French-language education, while at the same time
take into account the nuances
of each child and family, he added.

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