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Negotiating linguistic limits

The push and pull in Maritime French-language education policy

Acadians form one of the largest French-speaking minorities in Canada. Mostly living in the Maritime provinces, Acadians first settled in Canada in 1604, and despite the fact that many Acadians were deported by British colonial authorities beginning in 1755 (during the Seven Years War) a substantial Acadian population still remains. The late 20th century, especially after the enactment of official bilingualism in 1969, saw the beginning of efforts by the government to redress past persecution of minority francophone groups through guarantees of access to minority-language education.

Minority language education rights were enshrined in section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when the constitution was repatriated in 1982. This created a positive right for children to receive schooling in their official mother tongue. However, federal programs looking to boost access to minority language education precede the Charter, dating back to the introduction of official bilingualism in 1969. “The Charter created a constitutional obligation out of an effort the government had started 13 years earlier,” Hayday said.

Through the Ministry of Canadian Heritage, the federal government started giving grants to provinces in the 1970s to establish minority-language education programs.

“For every student in a province studying in a minority language, the [federal] government would pay a percentage,” explained Hayday. French-language students were subsidized at a rate of 9 per cent, and French as a Second Language (FSL) students at 5 percent. Although the cost shared by the federal government might seem small, since education is a provincial responsibility the program was merely intended to cover for additional expenses in providing second-language resources.

The charter guarantees access to minority language education where “the number of those children so warrants.” Much of the Charter litigation on language rights has focused on the administration of minority language schools. For example, in Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island (2000) the Supreme Court established that French-language school boards, and not the provincial Department of Education, have the discretion to decide whether there are enough children in an area to establish a school.

This trend of giving French boards greater control over their schools has been reflected in other provinces. Nova Scotia, for example, gave the only French school board in the province (as opposed to seven English ones) the authority to write the French-language curriculum in 2003, with the Department of Education retaining final approval power. Previously, French-language schools followed the English curriculum, with teachers expected to do much of the translation. This placed a heavy burden on teachers, who were forced to find material in French that would satisfy the requirements dictated by the curriculum.

“I remember as a teacher having to find material in French to teach for a course on law designed in English,” recalls Gilles LeBlanc, executive director of the Acadian and French Language Services branch of the Department of Education in Nova Scotia.

New Brunswick, the province with the second largest proportion of French speakers in the country, began reforms on French-language education in the late 1960s. Starting in 1966, francophone elementary-school students were entitled to receive instruction in their mother tongue. In 1969, the government of Premier Louis Robichaud enacted the Official Languages of New Brunswick Act, making the province the only one in the Canadian federation to be officially bilingual.

“New Brunswick is 30 per cent francophone, and so its government is a lot more sensitive to the demands of the Acadian population,” stated Matthew Hayday, a historian at the University of Guelph.

Although Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island (PEI) also have Acadian populations, these provinces took longer to promote French schooling. Part of the reason comes down to numbers: in the 2006 census francophones made up only 4 per cent of PEI’s population and 3.6 per cent in Nova Scotia.

In the past, there was some reluctance among francophones to embrace French schools. Hayday explained that a small number of parents were concerned about what would happen to their children’s English skills if they were sent to a French school. This attitude has since changed, with francophone groups in those two provinces taking the government to court in recent years to gain control of the French-language school boards.

Measuring the success of the French-language schooling programs can be difficult. Looking at graduation rates is misleading, because the French program loses a lot of students to the English school boards. Graduation rates are calculated by dividing the number of students in grade 12 in a given year by the corresponding number of students in grade nine three years before then. If a lot of students transfer boards before graduation, this will result in an inaccurately low assessment of student success.

For example, some French schools in Nova Scotia were too small to offer upper years, forcing students to transfer to the English system to complete their diploma. This gave rise to seemingly appalling-looking graduation rates – as low as 54.8 per cent in 2001-2002 – that were more reflective of institutional limitations than academic difficulties.

LeBlanc said, however, that French programs are on the upswing. In Nova Scotia, the French school board Conseil scolaire acadien provincial, has drastically improved student retention rates over the past decade. The most recent graduation rate was 89.5 per cent for 2009-2010.

Future challenges to French-language schooling likely lie in funding. The federal government was criticized last August by the PEI French school board for the inadequate increase in the Canadian Heritage program that funds minority language schools, because it could result in a reduction of funding in real terms. In spite of these challenges, educators remain optimistic about the future of the minority language system.

“Of the seven boards in Nova Scotia, the French school board is the only one where enrolment is increasing,” LeBlanc said.