Opinion: A missed opportunity to strengthen French

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When parents like me witness the state of our public school libraries, it feels like the state is sending us a clear message.

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My daughter is enrolled in our local French public school. Before the pandemic, her class visited the school library once a week, subject to the availability of volunteer parents or grandparents. We volunteers were welcomed by enthusiastic teachers and a director who made us feel indispensable.

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When my daughter entered 2nd grade, she had a new teacher who had transferred from another school. I introduced myself, informing the teacher that I was his classroom library volunteer. She looked confused. She had never taught in a school with a working library. After talking about it with parents in our Plateau neighborhood, I discovered that our school is lucky to have a library, even though we have never had a professional teacher-librarian on staff, and the rest skeleton of what we call a school board has no intention of sending us one.

Our school library has closed during the pandemic. From all reports I can retrieve, children’s literacy levels have dropped over the past two years. At best, our school’s library collection is outdated. There are few French books featuring children of color, for example. Few books on Aboriginal history are written by Aboriginal authors. Children from any of these communities might be understandably discouraged by the lack of stories in French written by the very people they describe. Before the pandemic, the school board sent two lovely librarians to help us weed our collection. I watched in anguish as they tossed torn and crumpled copies of French books on Diwali and the Yiddish folk tale It Could Always Be Worse into the discard pile. That’s India and Eastern Europe, I thought.

It can always be worse. The library is still there, a reminder that children will eventually return to a place where they can read for fun and curiosity. According to every expert and measure, school libraries are invaluable for language acquisition, helping children crystallize their knowledge and enrich their vocabulary. Of course, there are municipal libraries. But recognizable barriers to accessibility exist for children who are not native speakers, immigrants or migrants, or whose parents have unpredictable work schedules. Primary school libraries are an essential point of contact for children at a crucial time in their schooling, especially for those who do not speak French at home. They are also necessary for French-speaking children because reading strengthens vocabulary. In other words, a school library helps produce competent French speakers who will study, live and work in this beautiful language that has survived since the British conquest and is now rightfully threatened by global English.

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When parents like me witness the state of our public school libraries and literacy rates in Quebec, it seems like the state is sending us a clear message. The current government did not cause the school library crisis, which has a long and complex history. But the Coalition Avenir Québec could fight for the protection of the French language by focusing on early childhood interventions. Instead, he intends to use Bill 96 to punish Anglophone, Francophone and Indigenous CEGEP students and workers for a problem they did not cause.

Sometimes I wonder if I live on the same planet as the members of the CAQ government. Their children probably attend subsidized French private schools – a completely different subject, no doubt contributing to social inequality. Perhaps they possess the many books needed by every household to increase the likelihood of attaining a higher level of education.

Quebec could engage in positive and even aggressive interventions, develop a world-class model of public education, build libraries, hire teacher-librarians, and introduce innovative language arts into elementary schools – anything else, really, to ensure the early acquisition of the French language. But this government obviously doesn’t care much about exhausted parents who work and scan picture books at lunchtime so kids can read Quebec authors. This government does not seem to care about students or language at all.

Deborah Ostrovsky is a writer from Montreal and was named a Rising Star by the Writers’ Trust of Canada.

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