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'ESL matters!' cry ralliers in protest of $17-million program cuts

"ESL matters!" chanted the crowd of over 800 who rallied at Vancouver Community College this week in protest of the federal government's decision to cut $17 million in funding from English as a Second Language programs across the province.

The decision, which came into effect April 1, will affect 17 different institutions across B.C. that provide free English language proficiency training to immigrants and Canadian citizens. Nine-thousand students per year at Vancouver Community College will be affected as a result.

"If affordable ESL is lost in our public colleges, we will not only lose the professional high-quality educational programming that ladders into other academic options, but we will also make it much more difficult for new Canadians with the credentials from other countries to obtain high quality language training that they need to practice their professions here in Canada," said Jenelle Davies of the Canadian Federation of Students B.C.

One student at the rally, an architect from Iran named Moriz, has over 12 years of experience in his field and a Master's in architecture from his country. He came to Canada with level three English and has now advanced to level eight. Due to the cuts, however, he might not get to level 11, which is required if he is to continue his studies.

At VCC alone, which is the largest provider of English language training programs in Western Canada, over 70 teachers will be laid off next year due to the cuts.

In past years, the federal government funnelled ESL funding through the B.C. government, which then distributed it to different institutions. Now, however, those institutions must apply for funding directly through the federal government.

Despite earlier reassurance from the government that funding would continue under the new scheme, many of the 17 institutions have been denied funding for 2015.

Camosun College applied for funding in early July last year, and did not hear until this April that their request was denied. "We would encourage you to work with the B.C. government concerning any additional requests for funding to address your needs," read part of the government's response.

After a number of schools expressed concerns about the cuts, the provincial government approved a transition fund of $10.5 million to be distributed between all 17 institutions. A month later it added another $6.7 million to be distributed between nine of the 17 institutions. Vancouver Community College was allotted $3.5 million.

The funding was intended to smoothen the transition towards the new system by allowing all programs to remain open until April 2015. But the funding is not enough to cover programs at larger institutions like VCC, which will likely not make it past December.

"The transitioning fund is just postponing the problem," said Lisa Robertson, an ESL Instructor at Camosun College. Over 1,000 ESL students at Camosun will be affected in 2015, over 20 per cent of them Canadian citizens.

After the cuts came to light, the Association of B.C. Teachers of English as an Additional Language, which represents over 900 teachers, decided to create a committee and try to appeal the government's decision.

"The goal would be to repeal the cuts and restore funding for public post-secondary ESL programs in some way, shape or form," said Robertson, who is also member of the committee.

For now, the vice-presidents of Camosun, Langara, VCC, Fraser Valley, Kwantlen and Douglas are doing their best to meet with the Ministry of Education before August to discuss the new model for ESL.

Estefania Duran moved to Vancouver seven years ago and has recently graduated from the London School of Journalism.

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