Fighting for French-language education rights

By Leah Germain

It has been 30 years since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into being, and the rights it entrenched for Canadian citizens are still being used to defend minority-language communities.

As recently as this year, the Prince Edward Island (PEI) French-language school board used the language provisions of the Charter to support a lawsuit against its provincial government. The Commission scolaire de langue française de l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard, which administrates French-language education in the predominately English-speaking province, is arguing that the Charter establishes that all Canadians have the right to education in whichever official language is their mother tongue.

In March, the Commission initiated legal action against the provincial government following its refusal to fund a new Grade 8 classroom at a French school in the city of Summerside, which is the main urban centre for the Island’s Francophone population of 5,900 (out of a total population of roughly 140,000 people). But according to the Commission’s chair, Robert Maddix, it should never have had to go to court since the right to access to education for Francophone students in PEI has already been established.

“There is no reason to go to court, because this was already heard in court, at the Supreme Court of Canada—the highest level,” says Mr. Maddix, referring to the 2000 landmark case Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island.

In one of the most important cases for French-language education in Canada’s recent history, two mothers, Noëlla Arsenault and Madeleine Costa, challenged the provincial government, demanding that it provide funding for French-language schools for PEI Acadians.

Madeleine Costa says growing up in a staunchly Francophone household in Kapuskasing, in northern Ontario, was one reason she fought for her children to have French education.

“For me, it was really important, because my father and mother were French and we [could not] speak English at home,” she says. Ms. Costa, 56, currently works as a substitute teacher in Charlottetown, and says she remembers the challenge of fighting for language rights. “Even though I knew I faced a brick wall, for some reason I had an intuition that [I should] go for it. And also because when you have children, you will do anything for your children.”

The case, which was launched in 1995 with the support of the Fédération des parents de l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard, eventually reached the Supreme Court of Canada. In January 2000 the women received the verdict: a confirmation their children should have access to French-language education. Ms. Costa’s youngest daughter, 16-year-old Mylène Louise Petitpas, is currently attending École François-Buote, a French-language school in Charlottetown. Ms. Costa’s two other children also attended that school. “My children won, and I am glad for them—that’s what I was in for,” she says.

According to Gabriel Arsenault, the president of the PEI Acadian organization Société Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin (in French only), the case was important to the province. “Since 2000, Prince Edward Island has gone from two Francophone school-community centres to six,” Mr. Arsenault explains. “We celebrated the official opening of the sixth school-community centre back in December. That case certainly had an enormous impact on how far we’ve come in just over 10 years.”

A report produced by Statistics Canada shows that, in 2006, 1,170 children of Francophone parents were enrolled in preschool through to secondary schools in PEI. Of those children, two thirds were receiving their education in French.  

Ms. Costa was not the only Maritime parent who had to fight for French-language education rights. French-speaking parents hoping to provide their children with access to a secondary school education in their mother tongue endured a similar battle in Nova Scotia.

Despite reports showing that assimilation was reaching critical levels, the province of Nova Scotia had delayed the construction of homogeneous French-language secondary schools in several areas of the province. The 2003 Supreme Court of Canada decision in Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education) ensured the establishment of these schools.  

Glenda Doucet-Boudreau, mother of three, remembers her frustration. “We [Doucet-Boudreau and other parents] were angry and very disappointed in all of this. We brought it to the Supreme Court of Canada.” Ms. Doucet-Boudreau, who works as a nurse in her hometown of Concession, Nova Scotia, says, “We went to the Supreme Court in October 2002, and in October 2003 they [decided] in our favour.”

In their official judgment, the courts ruled in favour of Ms. Doucet-Boudreau, emphasizing that access to French-language education helped prevent assimilation of Nova Scotia’s small Acadian population with the Anglophone majority: Section 23 of the Charter is designed “to correct past injustices not only by halting the progressive erosion of minority official language cultures across Canada, but also by actively promoting their flourishing.”

While Ms. Doucet-Boudreau had fought for her three children to receive access to education in French, only her youngest daughter, Coralie Boudreau, now 27, was able to attend a French-language school, in the last two years of her secondary school education.

Since the Supreme Court decision, the French-language school board (in French only) has been able to establish 21 elementary and secondary schools in Nova Scotia. In 2011, the board had more than 4,000 students enrolled to study in French. Out of a total population of 920,000, the number of French mother-tongue citizens in Nova Scotia is estimated at around 34,900.

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Published on Tuesday, October 30, 2012

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