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The hidden cost of cuts to a French campus in Alberta

Major budget cuts announced by Jason Kenney threaten the francophone campus of the University of Alberta

Canadian PoliticsCultureQuebec

University of Alberta Campus Saint-Jean sign on Rue Marie-Anne Gaboury. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

What does a budget cut for the University of Alberta have to do with honouring the continuation of the linguistic and cultural communities that make up a multinational federation like Canada? It starts with the fact that this university is home to the sole French speaking centre for higher education west of Manitoba’s Université Saint-Boniface—Faculté Saint-Jean.

The francophone campus of the University of Alberta offers nine bachelor’s programs and two master’s programs for nearly 800 students pursuing post-secondary education in French. But this pillar of the Franco-Albertan community has become collateral damage to a $120 million budget cut to the University of Alberta ordered by Premier Jason Kenney.

The Saint-Jean campus already cut 80 courses offered in French for the fall 2020 semester, but a total of 180 courses are now at risk. Rather than enjoying protection as a rare and essential manifestation of French Canada outside Québec, the Saint-Jean campus has become dispensable. The implication is that perhaps French-English relations in Alberta are also dispensable, or at least vulnerable enough to be considered little more than expendable.

In 2017, I traded desert dust for snow, moving from Arizona to start a master’s program at the Université de Montréal. At home I had seen minority rights erode, as Mexican-American studies were made illegal in the public school system between 2010 and 2017. I was drawn to Canada for its proud tolerance and recognition of its multinational and multicultural character, and I hoped studying in French in Québec would give me a broader capacity for cross-cultural understanding in a space defined by a healthier kind of cultural confrontation—for that is where I believe we learn the most.

I did my master’s program and wrote my thesis in French, and now, as I look ahead for doctorate programs and employment in Canada (where being bilingual means something) I think: this is not the type of cultural confrontation I was looking for.

In the time I have lived in Montréal, it has become obvious to me that French Québec is regularly reminded of its minority status within Canada, with continued efforts devoted to maintaining a francophone society in Québec rooted in the Quiet Revolution and Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language.

Sheer demographic forces in North America have long encouraged francophone Québecers to learn English. Substantial English speaking populations occupy some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods of Montréal, and thousands of English speaking students from across Canada come to study at McGill and Concordia. French Canada is aware it lives in a country of cultural confrontation, one where multiple linguistic and cultural communities must reckon with each other. English speaking provinces, however, enjoy a status where the pressure to recognize this fact is weak or non-existent.

English Canada needs no defence. But the Official Languages Act supports the development of linguistic communities, which means that in provinces where English speakers are comfortably the majority, extra efforts are required to ensure that the minority feels secure; that its society’s continuation and development are cared for by the other partners in the political pact of Canada.

Pavillon McMahon located on the University of Alberta Campus Saint-Jean. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Kenney’s budget cuts might not be purposely targeting any particular community. Yet this type of framing assumes the majority bears no extra responsibility to assure that minority communities flourish, and that the pursuit of universal best interest is sufficient. The “best interest” is a simple calculation of budgets that does not directly aim to privilege any one community but ends up privileging the anglophone majority by default. It is assimilation by indifference, where seemingly neutral budget cuts to a university end up weaking the province’s francophone character.

This type of privileging by default resonates in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While the Charter has specific language regarding the use of French and English and minority education rights, it nonetheless emphasizes universal protection of individuals over communities. The bilingual pan-Canadian identity that resulted from this emphasis was at odds with Québec’s own national project, thus bringing to pass the Charlottetown and Meech Lake Accords. The Constitution, however, still lacks Québec’s signature, and the recent budget cuts for Faculté Saint-Jean bring into question the vision of a bilingual pan-Canadian identity that it is supposed to represent.

Liberal models of citizenship and neoliberal economic policies tout the equality of individuals to fend for themselves but are often willing to let services for ethnic and linguistic minorities be collateral damage. While francophones have rights and protections under the Official Languages Act, and the Charter grants children from minority French or English communities to receive primary and secondary education in their language, the loss of post-secondary education opportunities in French equates to a loss of opportunities for francophones to develop their lives and futures in their own language. The result over time is a deterioration of communities in which living a life in French is possible and meaningful.

Jason Kenney should consider increased investment for the Saint-Jean campus, or at least some form of protection. Increased investment would benefit English-French relations in Alberta as well as across the Canadian federation. It would demonstrate that Alberta as a province and an English community honours the principle of mutual respect and a concern for the survival and flourishing of its federal partners. For French speakers in western Canada, the presence of a French centre of higher education in the region offers recognition of their existence and provides a real chance of preserving their particular French speaking community. The development of a centre of higher education in French could be of interest to Québecers or francophones in the east as well, given the small number of French-language universities outside Québec. Investing in French-language education opportunities in the west could develop ties between provinces and linguistic communities throughout the country.

The presence of a French speaking centre of higher education in the West also offers an opportunity for English speaking students to participate in French-Canadian culture without making what might be an intimidating move to Québec. Even if few accept the invitation to pursue higher education in French, the presence of a French community at the university reminds English speaking students that they inhabit a country of partnerships. Disinvestment in the French community, however, communicates to the majority that when budgets must be adjusted, it isn’t so important to look out for their francophone partners.

Maybe the budget cuts are a simple matter of cost and demand, and the Saint-Jean campus just doesn’t have enough demand. But relationships between linguistic communities where one community has the upper hand cannot make decisions solely based on proportionate demand. The interests of the minority will always be a collateral damage.

According to the most basic understanding of the Canadian federation as a pact between linguistically and culturally distinct communities, the vulnerability of the Saint-Jean campus reveals a failure on the part of Alberta’s leadership to assure francophone communities that their federal partners are invested in their continuity and fulfillment.

The loss of French higher education in western Canada reveals a general need for provinces to demonstrate more meaningful commitments to the multinational dimension of their political communities, provincial and federal.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Faculté Saint-Jean is the sole French speaking centre for higher education in western Canada. In fact, it is the only francophone campus west of Manitoba’s Université Saint-Boniface. Canadian Dimension regrets the error.

Gavin Furrey is a graduate student at the Université de Montréal.

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