BC Supreme Court ruling on French language education rights

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Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie Britannique (CSF or SD93) is one of the 60 public school boards in British Columbia. It currently has 37 schools throughout BC with enrolment of over 5,700 students. It is the only school district with the mandate to deliver official minority language education (French) throughout BC.

In order to better understand the recent court decision involving SD93 regarding French language education rights in BC, the CSF has provided the following overview.

Since 1982, minority language education rights in Canada have been protected under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In BC, the francophone community took the provincial government and its Ministry of Education to court in order to claim those rights and obtain management and control of francophone-minority educational programs.  As a result of these actions, the CSF was founded in 1995 and given the mandate to operate all francophone schools in BC.

In the beginning, most of the school properties which were acquired were those deemed to be surplus in other school districts, some of which were scheduled for demolition. The Ministry of Education also financed a few new schools.  However, as the number of programs and students grew, school facilities, transportation and capital funding failed to keep pace.  After several years of talks with the Ministry of Education and little results to show for the efforts, the CSF and members of the francophone community brought their concerns to the Courts.

In the action brought in 2010, the CSF, along with parents and the Fédération des parents francophones de Colombie-Britannique (FPFCB), maintained that the Ministry of Education and Province of BC “failed to provide British Columbia’s Francophone linguistic minority the resources and facilities that are mandated by section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” The Plaintiffs challenged “the defendants’ system for funding capital projects, and to a lesser extent, the operating funding needs of the linguistic minority.”

In a judgement of more than 1,600 pages, the BC Supreme Court agreed with some with the CSF’s concerns that section 23 of the Charter had been infringed, and that these infringements were not justified. Some aspects of the judgment are summarized below:

  • That the CSF’s transportation system had been “chronically underfunded” over a period of years and the Court ordered the province to provide the CSF with $6 million over 10 years to compensate for that shortfall.
  • That in some communities, the school facilities currently available to the CSF were not sufficient, and that those problems needed to be solved.
  • That the Ministry of Education’s capital planning framework breached section 23 of the Charter. Most notably, the Court ordered that “The Province must exercise its legal powers to create a long-term, rolling Capital Envelope to provide the CSF with secure funding to address its need for capital projects across the Province.”

In other instances, the Court denied the CSF’s claims.  For example, the Court denied some of the CSF’s claims that specific communities required Francophone programs/schools or upgrades to existing CSF facilities in order to comply with section 23 of the Charter.

While this constitutes a partial win for public francophone education, the CSF and joint plaintiffs have sought to appeal the Court’s decision in an effort to obtain stronger recognition for francophone education and its francophone community in BC. The Province also has sought a cross-appeal.

In the interim, the CSF continues to grapple with the fact that some parents do not have access to local francophone schools and that finding space for teaching and learning is a major challenge.  The CSF currently rents and leases classroom space in several communities. Although we are thankful to the school districts from whom we are renting sites, there are a number of uncertainties associated with renting out space, especially with enrolment increasing throughout the province.  In view of the difficulties arising from finding appropriate spaces, the CSF has had to resort to operating schools out of non-traditional instructional space like church halls, community centres and other locations, such as the Capilano University-Squamish campus.

In an effort to secure additional and better suited educational space across the province, the CSF has reached out to the community, other school districts and all levels of government to ensure its facility needs were known. The CSF’s goal is that when facilities and land planning decisions are made, including decisions about surplus properties, the CSF’s needs will be taken into account and given serious consideration.

Student transportation remains a top concern for the CSF as well, as many children travel long distances to and from school. For example, students in Chilliwack wanting a high school education in French must travel to Surrey. Furthermore, with over 150 buses across the province, transporting approximately 4/5 of the CSF’s students, the additional transportation funding ordered by the Court remains only a temporary solution as transportation cost projections continues to rise.

While much has been said about dollars and cents, CSF board chair, Marie-France Lapierre, wished to emphasise the importance of the CSF’s mission to preserve francophone culture.

“Welcoming and sharing a francophone program enriches the whole community, it does not take away from it,” said Lapierre.

She was also eager to dispel the myth that French immersion fills the gaps in francophone education, stating that such environments exist as a place where non-francophone students can learn in an enriched, bilingual environment.  The learning environment fostered by CSF, in contrast, aims to preserve francophone culture in conjunction with teaching French as a first language as is its mandate.

In a recent interview, Lapierre highlighted BCSTA’s importance as it relates to networking with other school boards.

“All of us, public school boards, work so that our students achieve their full learning potential. We can do this because of the work of our fantastic staff and the support of our dedicated parents as well as a tight community,” Lapierre said. “However, in addition, the CSF must also ensure to support our francophone families to develop and/or maintain pride in our francophone culture. To achieve this goal, we need the support of all citizens who believe in honoring the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.”


 

By: SD93 (Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie Britannique)
Photo by: Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

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