Judge orders minister to review child’s rejection at French school

'The family is very excited with the ruling here today'

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A Yellowknife family has claimed a significant courtroom victory in an ongoing legal battle to have their son enrolled at the city’s only French first language school after a judge struck down two previous admittance rejections from the ministry of education.

The French-speaking child, whose identity is protected by a publication ban, was born in Yellowknife just months after his parents left Europe to settle in the capital.

In May 2018, he was denied admittance to École Allain St-Cyr for the following school year after failing to meet criteria set out in a directive from the Department of Education, Culture and Employment.

The directive is crafted to safeguard minority language rights, enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to support “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,” the territory’s two French-first language schools, Yellowknife’s École Allain St-Cyr and École Boreale in Hay River.

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.

But the child’s parents, eligible non-rights holders who don’t meet the Charter’s criteria, were still able to apply for enrollment at the French first language school through three admission streams outlined in the directive.

The child’s parents did apply, and fell into the directive’s “new immigrant,” stream, but because their child was born in Yellowknife – he didn’t “arrive” with them in the NWT – they were told he didn’t meet the directive’s criteria, and he was rejected.

The child was again refused admittance in August 2018 after his parents asked Education Minister Caroline Cochrane to reconsider her decision to reject him, despite a recommendation from the Commission Scolaire Francophone.

The Commission Scolaire Francophone advised the child’s admittance would enrich the school’s cultural diversity, and bring positive impacts to the Franco-NWT community as a whole.

The family then took the department to court, calling for a judicial review of Cochrane’s decision.

Their lawyer, Francis Poulin, argued the minister’s interpretation of the directive was too rigid, which led to an unreasonable decision not to admit the young child.

Poulin said the minister could have used her discretion in assessing the child’s admittance.

The crux of the case, essentially, came down to two questions. One, was the minister’s interpretation of the directive unreasonable? And two, was her discretion hindered when she refused to admit the child?

In her oral submissions, the minister acknowledged she has the ability to exercise “residual discretion,” outside of the directive.

The applicants – the parents of the child – argued Cochrane impeded her discretion when she rejected their son’s acceptance to École Allain St-Cyr.

In a recent written decision, NWT Supreme Court Justice Paul Rouleau ruled the minister’s interpretation of the directive’s language was reasonable, but concluded she “never considered whether (the child’s) case presented factors and circumstances that could lead her to exercise residual discretion.”

“The balance that must exist between the consistency that a directive provides and the flexibility that is at the heart of a discretion has been severed in this case,” he wrote.

Rouleau said he found the minister “impeded her discretion when she refused to admit (the child) to Allain St-Cyr School because he did not fall into one of the categories of the directive.”

Rouleau ruled Cochrane did not take into account all relevant factors when coming to her decision.

As a result, both admittance refusals were cancelled by Rouleau, and the application for the child’s acceptance has been returned to Cochrane for reconsideration. The minster could still come to the same conclusion.

“The family here is very excited with the ruling here today. They are hopeful that once the minister reconsiders and assesses all the relevant factors, that the outcome may be a favourable one for them,” Poulin told Yellowknifer. 

He expects a decision from the minister within 10 working days.