I am the CAQ government’s nightmare, it seems — an import that sometimes speaks English on Montreal streets. And French. And some Inuktitut.
I have a dirty secret: I was an OOPQUS (Out-of-Province-Quebec-University-Student).
And I am exactly the kind of out-of-province person whose university recruitment will become much more unlikely with the proposed tuition rate increases.
I came to Quebec from my home in Labrador in the late 1970s to attend the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. I had been learning French since my childhood, in Labrador City, Newfoundland and Labrador. Labrador City is a scant 25 kilometres from the Quebec border. In my childhood, its population was probably more than one-quarter Quebec francophone.
I knew nothing about Trois-Rivières, except that I had a distant ancestor from there, and that it would be very French-speaking — which is what I wanted. I had come from doing a semester of immersion at the French language institute of Memorial University, in the French territory of St-Pierre-et-Miquelon.
I didn’t see Quebec as being foreign; different, sure, but not impossibly strange. It was kind of challenging, but also fascinating: I met Quebecers from the Mauricie and coeur du Québec; discovered the music of Beau Dommage; encountered poutine; went to the Carnaval de Québec. And fell completely in love, with Quebec. Speaking French felt like an intrinsic part of me.
There wasn’t a hint of an issue in relation to tuition. All post-secondary undergraduate tuition in Canada seemed affordable then. Had there been big price differentials for out-of-province students, it could have been a problem. I worked summer jobs, and my parents were very supportive of university education, but we were a working-class family where money was not limitless.
I began self-identifying as Indigenous as a young adult. In 2005, when the Labrador Inuit and Canadian governments signed the final land claims agreement, I became an Inuk beneficiary. The Inuit population in Canada is increasingly southern and urban: Almost a quarter of the 70,000 Inuit in Canada live outside of Inuit Nunangat, the Arctic homeland. That more urbanized population has somewhat easier access to post-secondary education.
To my occasional regret, I didn’t stay in Quebec. I ended up living in Ottawa, with a career in the federal government — frequently working in Gatineau — until I finally moved to a job in Montreal in 2015, where I worked primarily in French.
In my latest career, at McGill, I am part of a small but growing group of Indigenous faculty. There are now two Inuit faculty members at McGill, and increasing numbers of First Nations and Métis. Indigenous student populations are small, but growing: McGill sources estimate around 350; Concordia, about 250. Many of those students are from out-of-province, drawn to Montreal by the same attractions as other students: the quality of academic programs; a diverse student body; and the vibrancy of the city.
I teach academic-stream students in family medicine, and lecture in a range of other departments, where the student composition is often international and from Quebec and the rest of Canada. I also teach medical students, of whom a majority are Quebecers from a wide range of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. I am teaching course material that I developed, on Inuit health, that is apparently the first of its kind in Canada.
Many First Nations and Inuit students are able to receive some assistance for post-secondary education costs, but that funding is finite. Funders could prefer cheaper alternatives if Quebec universities become radically more expensive for out-of-province students.
For millennia, Indigenous Peoples have moved around a land mass that didn’t have boundaries. It is incomprehensible to see actions like those of the Legault government that apparently wants to heighten boundaries.
I belong here, and am making a contribution here. This is my territory — where I chose to live. I have been immensely enriched by my deep connection to Quebec. Other Indigenous people should continue to have the same opportunity.
Richard Budgell is assistant professor in the department of family medicine at McGill University.
This Opinion piece appeared in the Montreal Gazette on November 10.