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French Immersion Programs in Western Canada

  • Photo: “construction zone” by granth is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Demand remains high for French immersion programs in Western Canada.

Despite the high demand, many parents remain disappointed with the opportunities afforded to their children. 

Constitutional Status

The opportunity for children of Canadian citizens to study French, whether by attending a Francophone school or through French immersion, is enshrined in section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter):

23 (1) Citizens of Canada

  1. whose first language learned and still understood is that of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province in which they reside, or
  2. who have received their primary school instruction in Canada in English or French and reside in a province where the language in which they received that instruction is the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province,

have the right to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in that language in that province.

(2) Citizens of Canada of whom any child has received or is receiving primary or secondary school instruction in English or French in Canada, have the right to have all their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the same language.

(3) The right of citizens of Canada under sections (1) and (2) to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of a province;

  1. applies wherever in the province the number of children of citizens who have such a right is sufficient to warrant the provision to them out of public funds of minority language instruction; and
  2. includes, where the number of those children so warrants, the right to have them receive that instruction in minority language educational facilities provided out of public funds.     

A number of Supreme Court of Canada decisions have consistently enforced section 23 rights.

S. 23(1) & Francophone Schools

To date, the cases have focused on francophone schools and section 23(1).

As a result, provincial legislation now provides for French language francophone schools at public expense in certain circumstances.

In the most recent decision, Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique v. British Columbia, the Supreme Court of Canada reinstated a $6 million award against the province of B.C. for lack of transportation to French language schools. It also added another $1.1 million for delayed facilities.

S. 23(2) & French Immersion

Francophone parents in B.C. are not the only ones encountering roadblocks to their children being educated in French.  

In recent years, several B.C. schools have established lotteries and wait lists for much coveted kindergarten and grade 1 French immersion spots.

Many are shut out at this early stage. At times, this includes siblings of students already studying French immersion.   

Calgary schools have been known to discourage admission to French immersion to children who are in speech therapy, directing them instead to English programs.

The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) considers French immersion to be an “alternative program.”

Other alternative programs, such as Spanish, German and Mandarin bilingual programs, do not enjoy constitutional protection.

Classifying French immersion as an “alternative program” results in higher fees to access school bus transportation.

It also results in longer distances to travel to access school buses.  The CBE freely acknowledges that bus stops “may be well beyond reasonable walking distance from a student’s home.” Young children are in some cases asked to cross multiple major thoroughfares and construction zones, simply to catch a school bus.

Certain other rights and opportunities available to students in the regular English program are denied to students in French immersion programs in Western Canada.

These policies and practices can profoundly impact students, siblings, and the entire family. They may change the trajectory of lives.

Respecting French Immersion Programs in Western Canada

French immersion is the primary means by which Anglophones may learn French, an official language of Canada. For that reason, it enjoys constitutional protection.

Provinces and school boards must acknowledge that French immersion is not a subservient “alternative” program or a “program of choice.” Doing so will avoid costly and protracted litigation.

They must stop attempting to “manage” French immersion enrollment. They must meaningfully strive to satisfy the demand.

At least in Alberta and B.C., that is not happening.

If you are a parent encountering road blocks to your children entering or continuing to study French immersion, you are not alone.

We owe it to our children, our taxpayers, and to our nation, to do better.  

This is a modified version of a September 6, 2020 article appearing in online publications including the Kelowna Capital News. The content of this article is intended to provide very general thoughts and general information, not to provide legal advice. Advice from an experienced legal professional should be sought about your specific circumstances.  We may be reached through our website at