Victor Manuel, a young asylum seeker from Mexico, arrived at Montreal’s St-Donat school on a frigid morning last week with his seven-year-old son and baby boy, whose bootless feet were covered only in socks.
A social worker quickly alerted principal Yannick Dupont, who disappeared into a storage room and returned to hand over a pair of tiny boots.
“This is why we keep donated clothing on hand,” Dupont said, adding that in addition to teaching, his school is increasingly taking on the role of community-aid group for the rising numbers of would-be refugees arriving in Montreal.
Manuel had come to the east-end school to register seven-year-old Travis – not for regular classes, but for an intensive French-language course that is mandatory for children of newcomers who can’t speak the language. Immigrant children whose parents cannot afford private school are required by law to be enrolled in the French public school system, and these “welcome classes” prepare them to join the rest of the student body in regular classes.
“The school has made accessible the process of getting my child to learn,” Manuel said in Spanish, adding that he arrived in Canada in November.
“It was hard at first because we did not know the language. One of the social workers at the school had to help me fill in the paperwork. I hope Travis learns the language fast because without the French things get complicated.”
When immigrant parents register their children at the school, social workers are on hand to explain both the Quebec education system and the community resources available in the neighbourhood, such as food and clothing banks. St. Donat staff can welcome families in five languages: French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Ukrainian – for the recent refugees who have fled to Canada following Russia’s invasion.
Hosting welcome classes is new for Dupont and St-Donat – the school started offering the intensive French courses last fall. Eighty students are enrolled; the school has space for 100. Dupont said the school board called last September and asked whether there were any unused classrooms to satisfy the rising demand for welcome classes due to the influx of asylum seekers.
The federal government says about 51,340 asylum seekers arrived in Quebec in 2022, compared to 7,290 would-be refugees who entered the country through the province in 2021.
In Nassima Sayah’s welcome class, a small group of six- and seven-year-old children walked into a room whose walls were plastered with colourful posters displaying French words, letters and numbers.
“Bonjour!” exclaimed seven-year-old Juan-Pablo, who recently arrived from Colombia, as he walked to his desk.
Sayah started teaching welcome classes at St. Donat in November. She said she is impressed by the children’s motivation to learn French.
But a child’s first week is difficult, she said, adding new students are often anxious and don’t talk much.
“It takes about a week for them to integrate,” Sayah said. “So, we make sure to really be present for them. We play with them. We sing songs. We help them come out of their shell.”
About 80 per cent of students in Quebec’s welcome classes are children of asylum seekers. Since the beginning of the school year, St. Donat’s school board – Centre de services scolaire de Montréal, which oversees 187 education institutions with more than 110,000 students – has registered 2,000 students in the intensive French courses and opened 150 new welcome classes.
In previous years, the board would register 2,000 for the whole year, Mathieu Desjardins, director of school organization at the school board, said in a recent interview. About forty-five per cent of welcome class students, he said, hail from five countries: Mexico, Ukraine, Haiti, Algeria and Colombia.”
Dupont said that because of the various needs of these children, schools within the board are leaning on community organizations to help families with supplies and clothing, which he said is putting pressure on Montreal’s social services network.
Desjardins said the high demand for welcome classes has also aggravated teacher shortages.
“Adding 150 classes equals needing 150 teachers, but it’s also physical education teachers, math teachers, so it requires a lot of hiring, so we are in perpetual hiring, so that’s an issue,” Desjardins said.
He said there are also shortages for other education professionals such as psychologists and pedagogical consultants.
“I think politicians need to stop talking about the number of immigrants that we will receive in Quebec and make sure that we have enough money and resources to properly help these people,” Dupont said.
“Are we still realistically able to welcome more people in Montreal, say, in six or 12 months? I am not an expert, but I feel like we are on the edge.”
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.