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Minister of Higher Education Danielle McCann speaks to the media during a news conference in Montreal on Feb. 4, 2021.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Squeezed for space, Montreal’s Dawson College has for years been planning an expansion of its medical technology department that would include a clinic to serve the community and train its students.

But after promising in 2020 to fast-track $100-million for the downtown school, the Quebec government suddenly reversed course last week, saying the money would be better spent on Dawson’s French-language counterparts in the junior college system, known as CEGEPs. That decision sparked dismay in the anglophone community and accusations the government wants to shore up its nationalist base ahead of this year’s election.

In the legislature Thursday, Premier François Legault said he stood by the decision to cancel the funding for Dawson.

“Is it better to expand francophone CEGEPs before expanding anglophone CEGEPs? At the CAQ, we think it is,” Mr. Legault said, referring to his Coalition Avenir Quebec party, which continues to dominate the polls.

The CAQ’s popularity, however, has slipped a few points in the latest polls, and frustration against the government is increasing among a public weary of pandemic restrictions.

Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said he thinks the decision to cut funding is intended to boost the party’s nationalist credentials ahead of a fall election, which must take place on or before Oct. 3.

“I think it’s really directed at their nationalist base and sending the message that we are really focusing on protecting the French language right now,” Prof. Béland said in a recent interview.

The government, he added, is also trying to save face after tabling its reform to the province’s strict language laws, which was criticized by language hawks as being too soft.

The Parti Québécois, in particular, wants Bill 96 to prevent non-anglophone CEGEP students from attending English-language colleges.

Quebec already prohibits most non-anglophone students from attending English primary or secondary schools. Mr. Legault has said it would be “radical” to extend the ban to the junior college system.

Instead, Bill 96 would cap enrolment at all English-language junior colleges at 17.5 per cent of the province’s CEGEP student population.

“I think this is mainly about optics,” Prof. Béland said, adding that the debate around how to protect French will likely be a significant issue in the upcoming provincial election.

Quebec’s CEGEPs provide vocational training as well as pre-university education for Quebec students, who graduate secondary school after Grade 11.

Marlene Jennings, the president of the anglophone organization Quebec Community Groups Network, said the cancellation of Dawson’s medical technology building is a sign that English-speakers aren’t welcome in Mr. Legault’s Quebec, even if they also speak French.

“A year ago, I worried that the direction the CAQ government was going in could affect the vitality of our community. Today, I’m convinced that it will sap the vitality of our community,” Ms. Jennings said in a recent interview.

“The way a minority community is able to continue to exist and thrive is the real reality that its young people can be educated and can find employment and establish families and set down roots.”

Ms. Jennings, a former Liberal member of Parliament, said the new building at Dawson wasn’t intended to expand enrolment but to better accommodate the roughly 10,000 full-time and part-time students already enrolled.

“They’re not talking about increasing the number of students, they’re talking about providing an environment that promotes good learning,” she said, adding that most of the graduates of the medical technology programs affected will go on to work at French-language institutions.

On Thursday, Dominique Anglade, the leader of Quebec’s opposition Liberals, told reporters the government’s decision to cut funding was part of a “deliberate approach to divide Quebeckers.”

Tim Miller, who teaches physiotherapy technology at Dawson College, said the new building would allow the school to offer a more interdisciplinary approach to medical technology education. Mr. Miller said that if students train together and understand how their colleagues work, then they’ll offer better care to patients.

“The space really is critical in the full development of this approach,” he said in an interview. “Without that ability to see each other in the hallway, without that ability to have a simulation centre, without the ability to have an [educational clinic] to serve the general population and treat patients live together, it will not augment it to the level that it needs to, in order to help Quebec’s health care system.”

On Thursday, at a news conference in Sherbrooke, Mr. Legault defended the decision and said the province’s approach to English speakers was something all Quebeckers could be proud of.

“In Quebec, all services for education for health care are given to the anglophone community and it’s very important for me,” he told reporters. “But it’s important to understand that we have a common language – this language, French, will always be vulnerable in North America and we have to protect that.”

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