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Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 8, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 8, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Quebec's language law debate could get more interesting Add to ...

Turning the front page of this morning's edition of Le Devoir, I find at the top of page 3 a large colour photo of Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant brandishing his finger at the opposition during Question Period, as he and others are wont to do. And, under the photo, I read the headline: "Christian Paradis chooses English schooling." Followed by the sub-headline "the minister's children are registered in the Ontario school system."

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Behind Le Devoir's pay-wall, Helene Buzzetti reports that Mr. Paradis - who represents the constituency of Mégantic-L'Érable and owns a house in Thetford Mines - has moved his family to Ottawa. And that, in Ontario, parents can choose which of four school boards to send their children (which is not completely true in the case of the province's French language schools). Ms. Buzzetti - who doubles as president of the parliamentary press gallery - also explains that, having begun their education in English, Mr. Paradis's children will have the right to continue to study in the language of Shakespeare when they return to Quebec.

In the article, Mr. Paradis defends what Ms. Buzzetti presents as a rather controversial choice this way: "I'm free to send my children to whatever school I want. Right now, they're going to an English school. This is a personal choice I've made because I want them to learn English. … At present [in Thetford Mines]there's no opportunity to learn English. In Ottawa, I can send them to an immersion program while I'm here. I think it's an advantage that they have, but the bottom line is to preserve the French language. I keep very close track of their work in French."

To date, the debate Maxime Bernier provoked by stating that Quebec's language law was not needed to preserve the French language has followed a predictable pattern.

In Ottawa, the opposition parties have roundly denounced Mr. Bernier. Doing what opposition parties normally do, they've sought to exploit maximum political advantage by tying Stephen Harper to Mr. Bernier's views. And the parliamentary press gallery - engaged in another round of feverish election speculation - has been eating it up.

Notably, the Trudeau wing of the Liberal party has been silent, though it's well known that the former prime minister had grave reservations about Bill 101 when it was enacted. In fact, Mr. Trudeau seriously considered challenging the constitutionality of the law, as his Anglophone advisers recommended at the time.

On the Government side, ministers - including Mr. Paradis - quickly adopted the longstanding Liberal dodge of assigning language to provincial jurisdiction. And, on background, they've dismissed Mr. Bernier's comments as just another outburst by Mad Max.

In Quebec, Mr. Bernier's comments have been rejected for being outside the "Quebec consensus." The MP for Beauce has also been attacked for making them in Halifax and for being unwilling to defend his position in Quebec.

Outside Quebec, one need not delve too deeply into the comment boards on the Globe and Mail site and others to find that Mr. Bernier's comments have had considerable resonance, and not just among Conservative supporters. Clearly, the two solitudes are alive and well in Canada.

Today's Le Devoir story exposes the dirty little secret of Quebec's language law. Whatever its merits and de-merits, it's the less-well-off who will pay the price throughout their lives of an inadequate mastery of English. The better-off and the well-connected have ways and always will to ensure that their kids speak what is the international language today and for some time to come.

In the coming days, it will be interesting to see whether our political leaders - and the media who cover them - stick to their predictable script. Or whether they begin to focus on the real problem, which is a problem of public education not unique to Quebec.

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