Quebec’s Bizarre Segregated School System

with 161 comments

Montreal English Schools

In 1969, just a couple of years after the United States government had to send in the army to protect black students being integrated into Little Rock, Arkansas schools in spite of the violent opposition of a certain segment of the white population, the municipality of Saint-Léonard on the Montreal island went through it’s own episodes of violent riots over the integration of minorities.

The only difference is that in the case of Saint-Léonard, the white, French-speaking, majority was rioting against segregation, not in support of it.

Québec’s segregated school system is as old as Canada. It was a compromise of sorts between the Protestant industrialists of Montreal and the all powerful Catholic clergy who agreed that the province would have two completely separate and independently run school systems : one Protestant, one Catholic, which with time morphed into French and English-language systems. The dual school systems were constitutionalised in 1867 and, to this day, Québec is the only Canadian province constitutionally obligated to maintain « separate but equal » schools.

The Parti Québécois did it’s best in 1977 to create modern integrated system for all children, regardless of their origin, religion or home language.  Bill 101 established that all of Québec’s children would from now on study  and receive their education in French, the majority’s language.

Except for Québec’s English-speaking minority, of course, who’s right to it’s own parallel school system was protected.  To this day, anyone who has studied at least one year in an English school somewhere in Canada is allowed to opt out of the majority’s school system.

This, of course, is rationalised on the principal of some supposed right of children to receive education in their language.

That’s interesting because, at least in Montreal, the majority of English-speaking youth are not studying in English at all!

According to the English Montreal School Board as many as three out of four primary school students spend most of their schoolday in classes taught in French.  The so-called “core” program where the majority of classes are taught in English is the least popular of all the school board’s options and is being abandoned by parents who demand immersion and billitteracy curriculum for their children.

Even Québec’s stuffy English Private Schools that only a generation ago prepared kids in penny loafers to rule the world in English are now falling over themselves to provide rich people with the French the publicly-funded system can’t afford.  The students of Westmount’s Selwyn Housenow spend between 50% and 80% of their class time studying in French and have even added a French verse to their school hymn! (Which, I belive, was the number 3 demand in the FLQ manifesto.)

Outside Montreal the situation is even stranger with many English schools having a majority of French students and very few actual Anglos exercising their right to receive an English-language education in Québec.  In Québec City close to 60% of the students in English schools are Francophones.  This is possible because French-speaking, or for that matter, any family that has obtained a certificate of eligibility to English schools through, for example, a mixed marriage, can keep passing the privilege along to further generations until the End of Time.

(For example I posses one of the fabled Certificates of eligibility even though I was raised in a French-speaking household because my father was an alumni of the very English Lower Canada College. Had I exercised that right, I would have been able to pass it on to my descendants, regardless of the language they speak at home, as long as at least one kid from every generation studied for at least one year in an English school somewhere in Canada.

I, however, decided not to follow my father’s footsteps in the land of crew cuts (and also shattered my mother’s dream that I would study with the Jesuits of Brébeuf College like Pierre Elliot Trudeau) and once the ultra-nationalist unionized separatist teachers of l’École Notre-Dame-de-Grâce primary school were done thoroughly brainwashing my young impressionable mind, I decided to go to a multicultural French-language public High School instead.

So my family no longer belongs to the elusive society of the eligible…)

Hey, it’s not that it’s a bad idea for Québec’s English-speaking kids to take classes in French. What’s profoundly bizarre is the concept of English-speaking children immersing themselves in French in schools with no French kids two blocks away from an actual French school…

As even the Montreal Gazette reported, the result is technically bilingual kids who don’t know any French people and who are uncomfortable ordering a burger in French at McDonalds.

On the French side there is growing tension between proponents and opponents to the kind of bilingual programs that have become common on the English side.  While there is a lot of demand for them, opponents feel that the French schools’ mission of integrating immigrants into Québec society, especially in Montréal, could be seriously compromised if more English was introduced in the schools.

As a result, many French-speaking families in Montreal are massively abandoning the public school system for private schools that offer, among other things, better English classes.  Between 2001 and 2006 the number of students in Montreal’s private schools leaped by 30%.

All this together leads to a profoundly dyslexic school arrangement.  Immigrants to Québec are now intergrating themselves into Québec society in schools with no French-speaking Québécois, while Québec Francophones send their children to private schools.  Montréal Anglos are building their own parallel French school network with no French students while Francophones in the rest of the province are keeping an English school system alive even though there are no more actual English-speaking students.

Written by angryfrenchguy

August 18, 2009 at 3:04 pm

161 Responses

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  1. Marc, who are you talking to?


    August 31, 2009 at 4:44 pm

  2. wow. very astute and well-articulated analysis of this situation. really helpful and insightful. thank you. i am contemplating moving to montreal with my kids, which would make them anglo-kids in the french public school system (which is devoid of real francophones). my question is: is there a system of gradually integrating children or are they traumatized by sticking them into the classroom without understanding a word of french? i heard the latter, from a woman who just moved here from montreal. thanks again.


    October 22, 2009 at 12:10 pm

  3. “is there a system of gradually integrating children or are they traumatized by sticking them into the classroom without understanding a word of french?”

    The “Welcome” program is (or was, back in the day) 10 months or one school year for your kids to get up to speed in French and all other subjects. SOunds short to me. Respect for the kids who go through that.


    October 22, 2009 at 8:00 pm

  4. Valerie : «my question is: is there a system of gradually integrating children or are they traumatized by sticking them into the classroom without understanding a word of french? i heard the latter, from a woman who just moved here from montreal. thanks again.»

    I work in a school where a good proportion of the students are immigrants.
    There are 2 things I can tell you :

    1) Never underestimate a child’s capacity to acquire a new language.
    -10 months immersion in a new language may seem like a traumatizing experience at first — and it is! — but it works. Kids’ brains are basically sponges for languages.

    2) Help your kid by making it so that the classroom is not the only place where they get to hear/use the language.
    Encourage them to hang out with French-speaking kids, buy them French comic books, French cartoons and movies, etc.
    -Basically, make it apparent to them that what they are learning in the classroom is useful, that it is a survival skill, instead of just some boring irrelevant “for-school-only-topic”.
    -At the same time, help them acquire an instinct of the language, by exposing them to it as much as you can.

    In my experience, point 2 is what makes some kids eventually reject immersion and end up becoming disfunctional in their new linguistic environment.


    October 23, 2009 at 12:10 am

  5. J’ai pas tout pigé mais assez pour dire que c’est de loin la plus objective (et optimiste pour les Québécois découragé du cas mouton-noir-mounial) des analyses que j’aie lue jusqu’à présent.

    I couldn’t get everything but just enough so I can state that it is so far the most objective analysis on MTL’s linguistic case I’ve ever read (MTL often refered as the black sheep for most pessimistic Quebekers).


    January 25, 2010 at 8:36 pm

  6. […] the sad clown. Howard Galganov runs for office. The Ignoble Character Assassination of Louise HarelQuebec's Bizarre Segregated School SystemIn Montreal French-speakers are still second classEnglish is Back in the Québec WorkplaceIn […]

  7. Here in Little Rock, where the FBI was (unofficially) called upon to create the ‘race riots’ we are so famous for, our family was at the front of the desegregation bus. Once we even awoke at around 3:00am to see a human scarecrow hanging from the oak tree in front of our house, as mom had said it was: “burning in efigee.”

    My franch taecher spoke with a deep southurn ackscent, ya kouldn’t hardly teal what in tha worldt sha was a sayin, mosta da tyhme. I dew declare eye felt sew stupid, it was so confusin’ I made an ‘F” and I darned near wanted to dye, cuz I always wanted to go to Paris and be able to say stuff like y’all do.

    Upon ‘graduation,’ and subsequently fleeing the South, some of my teachers were pretty special. Like Mona Dayton, who was among the first year staff at the New York Free School, under John Taylor Gatto. Mona was pretty shocked to learn that I couldn’t read, at age 19. In fact, I graduated from college with very little reading comprehension at all. Actually, they withheld my diploma until I agreed to “change the title” (and redact specific content) from my final thesis, titled: “Why Schools Fail To Learn.” I mention it, not because I’m jealous of Charloette Iserbyt, or JTG, but because we [the world] are sorely in need of the same kind of free schools today.

    And, man it would be soooo handy to speak french !!

    Tom-Scott Gordon

    April 17, 2011 at 6:09 pm

  8. howzit going out there. You will be glad to know that its been tipping down here in sunny newqauy and we have had the fire going at home. had a few good surfs since i got back but its been pretty rubbish really. Enjoy that warm French water while you still can. Boggy


    January 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm

  9. Hello! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m undoubtedly enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts. fddeeeadfebd


    July 20, 2014 at 12:23 am

  10. It’s actually a great and helpful piece of information. I am glad that you just shared this useful information with us. Please stay us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing. dbddeedaebbf


    July 20, 2014 at 12:24 am

  11. FYI if you possess a certificate of eligibility, you can pass on to your kids even if you never attended English school.

    Anglo Montrealer

    May 6, 2020 at 5:48 pm

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