Education minister Caroline Cochrane’s recent decision to deny five students admittance into French-lanugage schools in the NWT has been met with sharp criticism from the territory’s Francophone school board, which is “deploring” a move it calls disappointing.
“Commission scolaire francophone Territoires du Nord-Ouest (CSFTNO) deplores the defiant approach taken by Minister Cochrane in refusing five requests for admission,” states superintendent Yvonne Careen in a news release.
In May, a couple took the Department of Education, Culture and Employment to court after their young, French-speaking child was rejected admittance at École Allain St-Cyr — Yellowknife’s only French-language school — the previous fall after failing to meet criteria outlined in a directive set out by the department.
The directive is designed to safeguard and uphold minority language rights, enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, by supporting the “the growth of French-first language rights holders in the NWT by allowing a limited number of children of non-rights holder parents to attend.”
It’s meant to ensure that minority French speakers living outside of majority-speaking jurisdictions can access the quality education they need and deserve.
A rights holder is a Canadian citizen who, having met the criteria set out in the Charter, is granted the right to have his or her children receive an education in the minority language of the province or territory they live in.
The thinking behind limiting the number of children of non-rights holder parents is that if a territory or province allowed all residents the same access to schools meant for minority language groups, it would do a disservice to the preservation and promotion of minority language education.
In the case taken to court, the child’s parents were non-rights holders who were still eligible to apply for admittance to École Allain St-Cyr through a number of streams.
The student’s parents fell into the “new immigrant” category. But their child, who was born in Yellowknife not long after his parents arrived to the city, was denied entry into the school, on the basis he wasn’t born abroad.
Francis Poulin, the family’s lawyer, argued in court Cochrane’s decision failed to consider all relevant factors related to the case, including the use of her own discretion.
In June, a judge agreed.
Cochrane was ordered by Justice Paul Rouleau to review her decision to reject the student. Rouleau ruled the education minister had failed to explore all relevant factors related to the case, including her ability to use her own discretion when assessing the admittance of the student.
The department appealed the ruling but Cochrane committed to re-evaluating her decision.
She also took another look at the rejections of four other recently denied students. The minister requested additional information from the would-be students and their parents following the judge’s ruling.
“It’s very hard. (The families and students) went through a very, very heavy process to send their request to the minister; meeting with principals and teachers; having to prove their involvement in the Francophone community,” Simon Cloutier, chair of CSFTNO, told Yellowknifer.
Cloutier said the additional information Cochrane required was a time-consuming process that only built up false hope.
On Aug. 30, days before school was set to begin, he said the letters started to roll in: all of the rejections had been upheld.
Cloutier believes the minister’s mind was already made up even before she sought additional input from families.
“Can you imagine … they can’t even buy what they need for that school year because they didn’t know where to go … now they have to change their plan and look into a different school. It’s very, very hard for the families,” said Cloutier.
The school board, along with the family’s lawyer, has said all along: the directive, birthed from the need to protect the constitutionally-enshrined rights of minority language speakers, is there for good reason. It’s the “rigid” application of the directive — which leaves little room for discretion — that is causing problems, the board says.
When the fate of families and education is being decided, flexibility and discretion is paramount, said Cloutier.
John MacDonald, assistant deputy minister at the education department, told Yellowknifer decisions, like the one made by Minister Cochrane here, often involve a careful “balancing act,” one that borrows from the latest juridical statistics when it comes to education.
“So on one side, the minister has the responsibility of ensuring the the French First Language Program, which is provided for rights-holders and only rights-holders, that it be a very high-quality as to ensure that there is not a loss of quality to the program, so that students who are studying within the program are able to learn French at a very high standard and at a standard of a first-language French speaker, said MacDonald.
“So, with that in mind, the minister must place some restrictions on enrollment. But of course, the restrictions should not be so great as they limit the viability of the program of the wider Francophone community,” added MacDonald.
At the end of the day, the CSFTNO wants fewer restrictions, and more collaboration with the government.
Left with little recourse, Cloutier said the board is “looking at its options” with respect to further litigation against the department.