Quebec laws keep undocumented children out of school

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For two years, 13-year-old Max stayed home while most children his age made their way to school in Quebec. Max and his mother applied to become refugees in Canada and while their application was in process, Max attended school. But when their application got denied, he was ineligible to go to public school for free and his mother would have to pay $5,000 to $6,000 per year. At the time, Max's mother, who cleaned houses to pay rent, could not afford the fees and so Max remained at home. Two years later, the family got their status and he attended school once again. However, advocates argue that being away from school has a long-lasting effect on the social and personal progress of undocumented children like Max.

This September as children across Quebec head to school, untold numbers of undocumented children, like Max, will be left behind, according to the Education Across Borders Collective, a Montreal-based advocacy group. 

Most cities in North America offer free primary and secondary education for all children regardless of their immigration status. However, non-status children in Quebec cannot attend public school unless they are charged with the $5000 to $6000 fee. Most undocumented families in Canada have a hard time affording to pay the fee because of their precarious situations. 

"It's a very confusing system… people's status and paperwork are reversible but what is not reversible and what can't be changed is the effect on these children who are being kept from school," said Malek Yalaoui, a member of the Education Across Borders Collective

Yalaoui added that Quebec is the only jurisdiction in North America that systematically prevents non-status children from attending school for free. 

"Quebec really stands out alone in the world on this issue," she said. 

The collective is demanding that the Quebec Ministry of Education change the law to allow free public education for all children. The group is also calling people across Canada to take part in actions and campaigns to pressure the government to change its law. 

"We are launching a broad call-out to all organizations and people… This is an invitation to increase pressure to force the hand of decision makers by organizing a variety of actions, including disruptive ones, either with the Education Across Borders Collective or autonomously," writes the group on its website.

Over the years, the Quebec Ministry of Education has made administrative changes adding a few more categories to a list that exempted people from paying tuition. For example, it exempted families with moratoriums on their deportation if their destination was deemed too dangerous for them to return. However, Yalaoui argued that this does not really fix the problem, saying that most children do not fit under the exemptions and therefore many are still unable to attend school. 

The government says it has given school boards more flexibility allowing them to address problems on a case-by-case basis. However many parents, fearing being reported to Immigration Canada, do not even attempt to register their child, said Yalaoui. Many cases, she said, remain unknown because numerous undocumented families are too afraid to speak out.

Yalaoui added that it is vital for all children have free access to public school. The right to education, she pointed out, is protected in various international human rights legislations.

Article 26 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to education and that education should be free in the elementary and fundamental stages.

"We really think that most people in Quebec wouldn't stand for this if they knew what was happening," Yalaoui, said, "If they knew the facts, if they knew the situation, if they knew how it was affecting people, how it was so in contradiction of international law."

"We think the situation is allowed to continue because it's not well known. Most people don't know what's going on and the fact that all these children are staying home from school," She added.

Miriam Katawazi is a fourth-year journalism and human rights student at Carleton University and rabble's news intern. She has a strong passion for human rights and social justice in Canada and across the world. Her writing focuses on health, labour, education and human rights beats.

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