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Dawson college expansion abruptly axed to ‘prioritize francophone students’

In a letter to members of the Dawson community, the CEGEP’s director said the news was delivered during a “hastily called meeting” on Friday.

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Response Monday to the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government decision to pull the plug on a long-planned expansion of Dawson College — an expansion Premier François Legault’s government had initially supported — was swift and angry.

Liberal MNA David Birnbaum, Opposition critic for relations with English-speaking Quebecers, called the move “unwarranted, unsubstantiated, unworthy.”

Marlene Jennings, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), called it “simply appalling” and “yet another example of the Legault government’s persistent and relentless attack on the vitality of Quebec’s English-speaking community.”

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QCGN secretary Matt Aronson, a Dawson alumnus and former president of the student union, said, “If this is not a clear enunciation that the CAQ government considers us to be a second-class community, I don’t know what is.”

In a letter to employees on Sunday, Dawson director-general Diane Gauvin said that, in a hastily convened meeting late Friday afternoon, Danielle McCann, minister of higher education, had informed the college that its infrastructure project would not go forward.

McCann told them “the government has chosen to prioritize, in her words, ‘francophone’ students” and she urged Dawson to explore options other than construction, such as renting space, Gauvin wrote.

In a brief statement Monday, the government said: “We met with Dawson College and asked them to work to find alternatives to their expansion project to address their lack of space.”

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A final decision about whether to go ahead with the project as part of the government’s infrastructure plan will be made and made public with the tabling of the next budget, probably in March, it said.

Last June, the Legault government announced its intention to increase the number of spaces in French-language CEGEPs by 2029 by nearly 22,000 — and to freeze enrolment in English-language CEGEPs until then.

A cap on enrolment in anglophone CEGEPs and “the very strong demand for space” in francophone CEGEPs were elements in its reasoning, the government said Monday.

The Dawson expansion, approved in 2018 by the provincial Liberals, was for a new pavilion, in the neighbourhood of the main building at Sherbrooke St. and Atwater Ave., for students in health programs including nursing and radiation oncology: It would not have boosted student enrolment but, rather, addressed an acute space deficit acknowledged by the norms of the provincial ministry for higher education.

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Dawson’s space deficit of more than 11,000 square metres — the equivalent of more than 10 typical office floors, Gauvin said.

As enrolment increases in French-language CEGEPs such as Ahuntsic and Edouard Montpetit, expansion plans are in the works for them, said Liberal MNA Hélène David, who was provincial minister of higher education in 2018 when the expansion was approved.

“But before that, Dawson needed the space anyway,” she said Monday. “I am not against helping the French colleges, but there is an inequity because needs are supposed to be calculated with strict norms at the level of higher education.

“When a college needs space, we have to do something — and it is not one project against the other.”

The project, said Dawson’s Gauvin, “has faced challenges, many of them waged publicly in the media. The overriding opinion in these exchanges has been that such a massive investment in an English CEGEP was ill-advised.”

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Said David: “The spin of the Parti Québécois (opposition) is that (Dawson) would have more space. Yes, they will have more space because they have needed more space for the past 20 years — not because they will have more students.”

Birnbaum recalled how touching it was, following the tragic 2006 shootings at the college, “to witness the number of Dawson students who spoke with humanity and poignancy, in impeccable French, to media from around the world.

“Their comments were emblematic of this Quebec-based institution that contributes to the strength and vitality of our common French language,” he said. “For the CAQ to make this legitimate and substantiated project a linguistic issue is absolutely deplorable.”

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The Legault government had initially supported the Dawson expansion, despite criticism from the Parti Québécois opposition. The project was part of its infrastructure program to revive the Quebec economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and Legault defended Dawson as an “appreciated” educational institution in June 2020, after then-interim PQ leader Pascal Bérubé said the expansion would lead to more francophone Quebec youth being assimilated into the English-speaking community.

“My response is that Dawson College is appreciated as a college,” the premier said; CEGEPs are not covered by Bill 101, Quebec’s French-language charter, he added.

“I know that some francophones are going to Dawson. And putting money to expand the capacity of Dawson doesn’t mean that we refuse other projects in the francophone colleges. And we have no intention (of) changing … Bill 101. That doesn’t apply to colleges. So I support the expansion of Dawson College.”

In February 2021, the Legault government voted against a PQ motion to redirect the $100 million in funding for the Dawson project into the French-language education sector.

sschwartz@postmedia.com

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