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CAQ’s Dawson decision was ‘electoral and populist’: former college head

Richard Filion fears McGill’s planned expansion on the site of the former Royal Victoria Hospital could now be “in danger.”

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As director-general of Dawson College from 2005 to December 2020, when he retired, Richard Filion was adamant in his belief that the CEGEP’s mission was one of “service to all Quebec society, not only the English community.”

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He was dismayed, then, by the decision officially announced Tuesday by the Coalition Avenir Québec government to pull funding for a long-planned new pavilion that would have addressed a long-standing and significant space deficit at Dawson — a deficit of more than 10,000 square metres that was acknowledged by the provincial education ministry and based on its own norms.

The decision “basically creates two kinds of public institutions for college education,” Filion said on Wednesday: Those that get the space to which they are entitled — and those which don’t.

“It is a shame — and those who will suffer are all those young francophone and allophone students who chose to go to Dawson to master English as a second language because they knew and they know it is an asset for the future,” he said. According to the ministry for higher education, about 40 per cent of Dawson students between 2011 and 2021 spoke English as their mother tongue and that number has been steadily declining.

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To Filion, “when you have young anglophones sitting side by side with young francophones, it helps both. It is beneficial for everyone. But if you want to create a ghetto, anglos in their colleges and you in yours, what good are you doing?”

The problem is that English colleges “have been labelled as a threat to French in Quebec,” he said. “And so in order to cut the threat, you cut the space.”

In cancelling funding for the new pavilion, the CAQ government made an “electoral and populist” decision because it “has everything to gain by saying that their policies are toward the protection of French,” Filion said, “and nothing to gain from the English component of our society.”

Last June, the Legault government announced its intention to increase by nearly 22,000 the number of spaces in French-language CEGEPs by 2029 — and to freeze enrolment in English-language CEGEPs until then . Quebec’s 2021-2031 infrastructure plan provides for $138.8 million for Collège Ahuntsic and $157 million for CÉGEP Édouard-Montpetit.

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Danielle McCann, minister for higher education, told radio station CJAD Wednesday morning that the $180 million for the Dawson project “is a lot of money for one CEGEP” and that, with the anticipated influx of students to French CEGEPs, a “re-evaluation” was made to “prioritize extension projects for French CEGEPs.”

Opponents to Dawson’s expansion project “have been building a narrative in which Dawson looks like the villain,” Filion said, “and they have succeeded in making people believe that all this money that would have been dedicated to Dawson will just make the francophone colleges poorer.

“But it’s not true.”

Said Lorraine O’Donnell, affiliate assistant professor in Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs and research associate for the Quebec English-Speaking Communities Research Network: “It would be great if we could start to see English CEGEPs as not taking something away from the overall educational system for francophones, but adding to it — if we used an asset-based approach.

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“Dawson is an asset for Montreal and the province. Our institutions add not only to our vitality but to Quebec’s vitality.”

To Filion, money to develop space and facilities in Quebec educational institutions represents an investment in all Quebecers.

Yet he fears that McGill University’s planned expansion on the site of the former Royal Victoria Hospital on Pine Ave . could be “in danger.” The Quebec government has pledged to contribute $475 million to the project.

Maxime Laporte, president of the Mouvement Québec français, called the Legault government’s decision to cancel funding of the Dawson pavilion “a hard-won victory” and said it should “have the courage” not to fund the McGill expansion.

In the planning since 2014 and agreed to by the provincial Liberals in 2018 and initially supported by the CAQ government, the Dawson pavilion would have assembled students in seven health programs including nursing and radiation oncology; currently they are scattered in the main building at Sherbrooke St. and Atwater Ave. and in rented space at the old Forum.

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Dawson has more health students and health programs than any CEGEP in the network and the pavilion, which would have been unique in Quebec as an inter-professional learning space, was included among 202 infrastructure and other projects fast-tracked in a 2020 bill intended to stimulate Quebec’s economy.

Said Filion: “And the moment Dawson was listed as a priority for infrastructure, the nationalists started to say, ‘Why is Dawson being prioritized? It doesn’t make sense that the government fund its own marginalization.’ ”

In June 2020, Pascal Bérubé, then interim leader of the Parti Québécois, called a press conference to argue — incorrectly — that the new pavilion would enable Dawson to expand its enrolment by 800 students. (It would not have increased enrolment). He said also that it would aid in the assimilation of francophone Quebec youth into the English-speaking community.

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“It makes no sense,” Filion said. “Can we believe that two years in an English institution will pave the way to become an anglo?”

At the time, Legault defended the project and said that “putting money to expand the capacity of Dawson doesn’t mean that we refuse other projects in the francophone colleges.”

Considerable research has been done on minority communities and the issue of community vitality — a community’s capacity to survive and thrive, particularly a linguistic minority, said Concordia’s O’Donnell said.

“And when a key institution is geared toward receiving substantial funding and has made plans and, if that funding is reduced, clearly that presents a problem — not only for the institution in question, but it’s potentially something that could reflect negatively for the community as a whole.”

sschwartz@postmedia.com

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