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Keeping Canada’s second official language alive amidst major cuts to BC’s French immersion programs

HELEN AIKENHEAD // FEATURES EDITOR
ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHELSEA O’BYRNE

You may remember way back in 2016 when it was announced that the previous provincial government had fired the entire Vancouver School Board (VSB) for refusing to approve a balanced budget by the government-given deadline. What you may not know is that despite the lack of a sitting elected board in the period following the dismissal, major discussions about Vancouver’s educational system carried on as usual. One of the decisions made during that period – a decision made by a single trustee appointed by the Ministry of Education – was to make major cuts to Vancouver’s French immersion programs.

It’s often believed that the further you travel from the East coast, the less weight the French language holds, despite its status as an official language of Canada. By that logic, these cuts taking place on the opposite side of the country wouldn’t seem like a big deal. However, none of that is true. In fact, just looking at the school system here is one of the clearest means of debunking this myth. “French immersion has been a growing and successful program in Vancouver for over 30 years,” said Glyn Lewis, executive director at Canadian Parents for French BC and Yukon (CPF). “It’s got a very good reputation and great teachers, and because it has such a good reputation and because families are increasingly recognizing this as a life changing educational experience, more and more families are trying to get into French immersion. And that’s not just the case in Vancouver, that’s the case across British Columbia and in fact, across Canada.”

According to the most recent reports on the provincial government’s official web page, the French immersion student population has increased roughly 30 per cent over the last 10 years, and the French immersion population makes up around 10 per cent of the total student population in BC. Despite the steady incline, the cuts announced last spring will have a noticeable impact on young students seeking a bilingual education, and will greatly decrease these numbers over time.

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Looking more specifically at what is being affected, the approved cuts will remove a quarter of the total French immersion kindergarten classrooms in Vancouver. That means five classes will be cut, which works out to 135 children entering the school system who will be denied their chosen education. “This is within the context of phenomenal interest and phenomenal demand in Vancouver for French immersion,” said Lewis. “Before the cuts even happened, they had a 400 [student] long wait list for French immersion… now the wait lists are even worse.” With the French immersion program, there are only two main entry points. The first is in kindergarten, and the second is the late French immersion program, which accepts students in Grade 6. So, of the hundreds of children currently on the waitlist, these cuts mean that an additional 135 of them will only get another chance to enter the French immersion program when they reach the seventh year of elementary school.

Alternate to French immersion, students coming from households in which French is already spoken have the option of enrolling in schools in BC’s French language school board, Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie- Britannique (CSF). “It’s a different system than in the French immersion program,” explained CapU Language Resource Centre Supervisor and French instructor, Catherine Gloor. “Because the French immersion program is meant for kids who are learning the language and as they progress through high school, they actually take less classes in French, the idea being that they will most likely be going into English universities.” As Gloor further explained, in French immersion, students receive strictly French instruction until English is introduced in Grade 4, and becomes increasingly utilized in the classroom until Grade 12 where only one course, French language, is taught in French. Whereas in the Francophone program, English language is the only class that isn’t taught in French. Being that students enrolled in this program would typically come from a French family, French culture is also something that’s included in the experience. “And it’s really meant also for children to blossom in and embrace the French culture – their French identity,” said Gloor.

Because of Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Minority Language Educational Rights, Canadians hold the right to be educated in one of the country’s two official languages – meaning French speakers outside of Québec, as well as English speakers studying within the Eastern province, have the right to access an education in the province’s minority language. However, there are some criteria that need to be met. For example, in English-majority provinces, parents can send their children to a Francophone school if French is the parents’ first language, the parents had their primary education within Canada in French – not including French immersion – or, the child has a sibling who received or is receiving a French education.

Like the numbers seen in French immersion enrolment, schools in the CSF have incredibly high demand. “Francophone schools in BC have been growing a great deal actually, so much so that this past year they had to open two new annexes in Vancouver,” said Gloor. These annexes came after fights of their own where Francophone parents and the school board took the former BC government to court to demand more spaces in Francophone schools. “So with all that pressure, two new annexes were opened this past year,” Gloor explained. “They’re small schools, but it allows more room in the other elementary schools.”

Illustration by Chelsea O’Byrne

Those interested in French immersion are hoping for similar results. When BC elected a new government this past May, and a new Minister of Education was appointed, parents and organizations like the CPF asked the new minister to hold a by-election which is where every trustee publicly committed to reversing the cuts as soon as possible. Months later, at a late December board meeting, it was school staff who presented to the board, and the staff who stated that they cannot reverse the cuts.

“This is where you get the tension between staffs and boards,” said Lewis. “There is some power sharing that has to happen but ultimately the board was elected, and the board has a mandate. And ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the staff to live up to the mandate that the board was given from the residents of Vancouver. That’s the way that most people look at this.”

Now, despite registration for the Kindergarten entry point opening last week, the cuts have still yet to be reversed

Whether it’s the staff or the VSB, French immersion programs aren’t being cut for no reason. The VSB has said that there are two logistical reasons for cutting the programs, neither of which are the first of their kind in the BC system – a lack of space and a shortage of teachers.

To the CPF and many like-minded parents, space is not an agreeable argument as the students must be placed somewhere, whether that’s a French or an English class. Former VSB chair, Patti Bacchus, wrote an article for the Georgia Straight, citing that there is no clear-cut solution. “French immersion is complicated,” wrote Bacchus. “You can’t just add a kindergarten class here and there. You have to plan for subsequent years… That requires figuring out where you have enough classrooms available and whether you’ll be needing them over the next eight years, or longer.” In the article, Bacchus goes on to explain the further complications in planning where to place French – immersion classes, such as a higher concentration of special needs students and English-language learners being placed in the English classes, as English classes aren’t choice programs like fine arts, international baccalaureate or French immersion classes are.

BC’s teacher shortage has long been a problem plaguing the province’s schools so it’s hard to argue that point. Although there is a long-running teacher shortage in general, French teachers are in an even shorter supply. “We empathize with them on the French teachers,” said Lewis. “We think that they [provincial and federal governments] could be doing more, but at the same time we also recognize that there’s other folks who have to step forward to help alleviate the shortage. And that includes post secondary institutions and that includes government.”

As far as post-secondary goes, with more people studying the language at a post-secondary level, the more French teachers can be produced and help with the shortage. At CapU, there is a lot of potential for students to help with the shortage in the future. There are more French courses offered than in any other secondary language programs at Cap, and enrollment is high. “We have so many high school graduates who are wanting to continue learning French, so, the enthusiasm is there for sure,” said Gloor. “And I’d say also particularity with international students. We are having more and more international students coming to CapU and they’re particularity interested in learning Canada’s other official language.”

But what about life outside of school? When compared to cities out east, Vancouver is certainly not a top contender for having the most French culture. But that doesn’t mean the Francophone communities here aren’t lively and proud groups. And while there may not be a single specific area of the city dedicated to French culture, there are many pockets of French communities spread throughout the Lower Mainland. “There are a lot of languages that are spoken before French, this is really quite a multicultural place… but that’s what makes this place so lively, right? And the French community, the Francophone community still has a great presence,” said Gloor. “I think what helps ground it is very much the Francophone school system. I’d say the French immersion programs are a great help as well, because that adds up Francophiles into the mix.”

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