John Ivison: Jacking up English tuition fees is Legault's pungent insult to the rest of Canada

The imaginary hobgoblin of the decline of French in Quebec is once again behind the Premier’s outrageous policy

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You have to hand it to Francois Legault. He has won back-to-back majorities in Quebec and would win another if a vote were held tomorrow. It seems that discrimination is popular in the province.

He has bolstered his approval ratings by squeezing record levels of transfers from Ottawa — nearly $30 billion this year — while treating Anglo-Franco relations with the same diplomacy shown by the French knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who famously told the English King: “I fart in your general direction.”

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The latest instance of Legault’s contempt was Friday’s announcement that the Coalition Avenir Québec provincial government will increase tuition fees for out-of-province students studying in Quebec from around $9,000 for an undergraduate full-time student to $17,000.

Fees for international students will also be affected, though it is not entirely clear yet by how much.

The move will mainly hit the three English-speaking universities in the province — McGill and Concordia in Montreal, and Bishop’s in Lennoxville — that have proven remarkably successful at attracting the best and brightest from the rest of Canada.

“When tens of thousands arrive on the island of Montreal without a mastery of French, it’s obvious to have an anglicizing effect on the metropolis,” said Jean-Francois Roberge, the CAQ minister of French language.

As he sounds the death knell for one of the world’s great, cosmopolitan university cities, it is probably not a problem he will have to worry about for long.

Since Quebec has bilateral international agreements with France and Belgium that allows them access to Quebec’s universities at the same level of tuition fees as out-of-province Canadian students, they will be exempt from next fall’s increase.

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This will result in the ludicrous scenario where a student from Paris attending McGill will continue to pay around $9,000 while an anglophone student from Ontario or a francophone from Alberta will have to stump up nearly double that amount. You can imagine Legault’s amusement when the idea was presented to him — and what his response to any criticism will be: “Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person.”

The minister of higher education, Pascale Déry, said that the move is being made because the government has been financing Canadian students to come to Quebec’s English-speaking universities and then leave after graduation. No statistics were provided to support the claim.

The additional money raised — an estimated $110 million — will be used to “better support” the French-speaking network of universities, as if the number of incoming students from the rest of Canada will not be impacted by such a massive fee hike. Graham Carr, the president and vice-chancellor of Concordia University, said those calculations need to be refined and re-examined “because the assumptions are inaccurate.”

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Of course, the real reason behind this move is not fiscal, it is cultural: the imaginary hobgoblin of the decline of French in Quebec that has driven all of Legault’s other outrageous policies.

This is the government that has passed a bill to unilaterally amend the Constitution of Canada to affirm that Quebec is a “nation” and “the only official language of Quebec is French.” It introduced bills that prevent public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols to work and limit the amount of English that can be used in public life. So confident was the government of their constitutionality that it pre-emptively shielded them behind the “notwithstanding” override clause.

This is also the leader who intervened personally to have English-language content removed from his party’s website during the 2022 election, sending a clear message to anglophone and allophones that their votes were not wanted.

All this is done because Legault continually characterizes Quebec as being under threat from a tidal wave of English.

Legault has proceeded to govern as if the province is independent, disregarding all representations from Ottawa, while continuing to take its money. This de-facto drift away from Canada has been aided and abetted by craven federal politicians, eager to curry his favour and petrified of incurring his wrath.

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Jean-Francois Lisée, the former leader of the Parti Québécois, explained his support for the new measures in a tweet on Sunday. “As soon as Anglo-Americans count for 2 percent of the continent’s population (as we francos do), I suggest you adopt a robust policy for attracting foreign anglo students. Fair? Maybe not. Necessary? You bet,” he wrote.

But is it? How many people really come to Montreal without a mastery of French, in Roberge’s words? The 2021 census suggested one in five people in the city is trilingual, never mind bilingual.

The census said 94 per cent of Quebecers speak French, compared to 83 per cent 50 years before, in large measure because far fewer speak English only.

The number who list French as their mother tongue has dipped slightly in the past 20 years, from 81 per cent in 2001 to 75 per cent in 2021, but that is largely because of the increase in the number of allophones. Almost all of them speak French, largely because Quebec controls 70 per cent of its immigration intake and makes language skills a condition of entry.

The solution to this made-up problem is to discriminate against minorities.

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But Legault’s efforts to build a hermit kingdom — a francophone Ruritania — will in the long term damage his province and its people.

Concordia’s president was careful not to burn bridges with the government but could scarcely contain his exasperation. “We are in a race for talent all over the world. We have cutting-edge industries here from AI to cyber security to finance. I worry that a policy like this is going to have consequences for the economic well-being of the country and the province,” Carr said in an interview.

But that is a small price to pay for Legault, who sees it as a way of weakening Anglo institutions in Quebec, and as yet another way of cutting ties to Canada — all without the messy business of a referendum.

The only cure for contempt is counter-contempt. Ottawa should tell Legault there will be a fiscal price to pay if he continues his tyranny of the majority.

National Post

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Originally posted 2023-10-17 10:00:50.