Young Quebecers have a difficult choice ahead

PQ platform will include tuition freeze, restricting access to English-language CEGEPs

The Parti Québécois held their big party congress over the weekend. This conference was particularly important because Quebec’s largest opposition party was deciding on the policies that they will be bringing to the voters in the next provincial election.

The biggest news out of the congress was the overwhelming level of support for leader Pauline Marois. She received over 93 per cent in a confidence vote, well over the 80 per cent required to avoid a leadership contest.

There were also some interesting developments on the education front, with delegates voting to oppose the tuition hikes introduced in last month’s provincial budget and, if elected, to freeze tuition at 2012 levels. That proposal has received support from the province’s largest student lobby group.

Delegates also backed recent calls by PQ members of the National Assembly to extend the province’s language laws, which currently restrict access to English-language primary and secondary schools, to CEGEPs. Students in Quebec, who graduate high school in grade 11, must attend a two-year CEGEP program before going to university. The colleges also provide vocational programs.

Currently in Quebec, children can only attend schools in the English-language system if one of their their parents or siblings was educated in English in Canada, or if the child began their schooling in English elsewhere in the country before moving to the province. Everyone else, essentially all francophones and immigrants, must attend French-language schools. The restrictions apply to all schools that receive any government funding, including most private schools.

The PQ has always been something of a strange animal. It is, essentially, a single issue coalition, centred around Quebec nationalism and promoting the French language. Yet, it has formed the province’s government on several occasions and, according to a poll that appeared in Saturday’s Le Devoir, may be poised to do so again.

Over the past few years some high-profile former PQ members, including former leader, Lucien Bouchard, have publicly denounced hard-line nationalist positions. This movement away from the party seems to be coming mostly from its right wing, leaving the PQ more left wing and more radical, at least when it comes to issues of Quebec nationalism and the French language.

But while Marois may be more radical than some of her predecessors, she is certainly not on the party’s radical fringe. Over the weekend, she convinced the majority of delegates to backtrack on a policy that would have called for all commercial signs in the province to be exclusively in French. Instead, the party will be sticking with the status quo, which allows multilingual signs, as long as French is predominant.

The party’s plans to extend the language laws to CEGEPs are controversial and may not be very popular but it’s probably not going to cost them politically. The number of students who would be affected by this change is small, around 4,000 a year, the far majority of whom are in the Montreal area, which isn’t exactly a PQ stronghold. As well, it’s a much bigger issue for anglophones, who wouldn’t have voted for the PQ anyway, than for francophones.

Quebec’s next election could still be a long way off, Premier Jean Charest doesn’t have to call one until December 2012, so it’s much too early to call this one for the PQ. But, when it does come, many young Quebecers will most likely be feeling that both of the province’s major parties are working against their interests.