Although demand for French immersion programs remains high in Western Canada, many parents are disappointed with the opportunities afforded to their children.
The opportunity for children of Canadian citizens to study French, whether by attending a Francophone school or through French immersion, is enshrined in section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter).
23. (1) Citizens of Canada
- (a) whose first language learned and still understood is that of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province in which they reside, or
- (b) who have received their primary school instruction in Canada in English or French and reside in a province where the language in which they received that instruction is the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province,
have the right to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in that language in that province.
- (2) Citizens of Canada of whom any child has received or is receiving primary or secondary school instruction in English or French in Canada, have the right to have all their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the same language
- (3) The right of citizens of Canada under sections (1) and (2) to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of a province;
(a) applies wherever in the province the number of children of citizens who have such a right is sufficient to warrant the provision to them out of public funds of minority language instruction; and
(b) includes, where the number of those children so warrants, the right to have them receive that instruction in minority language educational facilities provided out of public funds.
A number of Supreme Court of Canada decisions have consistently enforced section 23 rights. To date, the litigation has focused on francophone schools and section 23(1).
As a result, provincial education statutes now provide for French language francophone schools at public expense in certain circumstances.
In the most recent decision, Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique v. British Columbia, the Supreme Court of Canada reinstated a $6 million award against the province of B.C. It added another $1.1 million for delays in a provincial facilities upgrades grant.
The province of B.C. exposed itself to this award by underfunding French language education.
Francophone parents in B.C. are not the only ones encountering roadblocks to their children being educated in French.
In recent years, several B.C. schools have established lotteries and wait lists for much coveted kindergarten and grade 1 French immersion spots.
Many are shut out at this early stage. In at least some communities, this includes siblings of students already studying French immersion.
Calgary schools have been known to discourage admission to French immersion to children who are in speech therapy, directing them instead to English programs.
The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) considers French immersion to be an “alternative program.”
Other alternative programs, such as Spanish, German and Mandarin bilingual programs, do not enjoy constitutional protection.
Classifying French immersion as an “alternative program” results in higher fees to access school bus transportation.
It also results in longer distances to travel to access school buses. The CBE freely acknowledges that bus stops “may be well beyond reasonable walking distance from a student’s home.” Very young children are at times asked to cross multiple major thoroughfares, simply to catch a school bus.
Certain other rights and opportunities available to students in the regular English program are denied to French immersion students.
These policies and practices can profoundly impact students, siblings, and the entire family. They may change the trajectory of lives.
French immersion is the primary means by which Anglophones may learn French, an official language of Canada. For that reason, it enjoys constitutional protection.
If they wish to avoid costly and protracted litigation, provinces and school boards must acknowledge that French immersion is not an “alternative” program or a “program of choice” involving subservient rights.
They must stop attempting to “manage” French immersion enrollment. They must meaningfully strive to satisfy the demand.
At least in Alberta and B.C., that is not happening.
If you are a parent who is encountering road blocks to your children entering, or continuing to study in, a French immersion program, you are not alone.
We owe it to our children, our taxpayers, and to our nation, to do better.
About Susan Kootnekoff:
Susan Kootnekoff is the founder of Inspire Law, an Okanagan based-law practice. She has been practicing law since 1994, with brief stints away to begin raising children. Susan has experience in many areas of law, but is most drawn to areas in which she can make a positive difference in people’s lives, including employment law.
She has been a member of the Law Society of Alberta since 1994 and a member of the Law Society of British Columbia since 2015. Susan grew up in Saskatchewan. Her parents were both entrepreneurs, and her father was also a union leader who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of workers.
Before moving to B.C., Susan practiced law in both Calgary and Fort McMurray, Alta. Living and practicing law in Fort McMurray made a lasting impression on Susan. It was in this isolated and unique community that her interest in employment law, and Canada’s oil sands industry, took hold. In 2013, Susan moved to the Okanagan with her family, where she currently resides.
The content of this article is intended to provide very general thoughts and general information, not to provide legal advice. Specialist advice from a qualified legal professional should be sought about your specific circumstances.
If you would like to reach us, we may be reached through our website, at www.inspirelaw.ca.
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