francophone school jackpot hits a nerve

"Francophones Hit the Jackpot" ran as the headline in last Friday's Yukon News after the Yukon Supreme Court ordered the territorial government to build a brand new francophone high school within two years.

“Francophones Hit the Jackpot” ran as the headline in last Friday’s Yukon News after the Yukon Supreme Court ordered the territorial government to build a brand new francophone high school within two years.

The decision has clearly hit a nerve with non-francophones. It’s not often you go to Yukon summer barbecues and have people gesticulating so wildly at you over education policy that their mojitos go flying all over the kitchen.

Two themes seem to agitate people the most.

The first is why francophones get their own school system. Why not First Nations?

Statistics Canada’s 2006 census said 7,070 Yukoners ticked the “aboriginal” box. This was the Yukon’s second most common ethnicity, while “French” was in seventh place. Or even German-Yukoners (sixth place)? It is similar to complaints by Protestants, Evangelical Christians and Muslims about why only the Catholic school system gets government funding.

But we have to remember that francophones have rights that these other groups do not, rights which go back to the foundation of Canada and which were embedded by Pierre Trudeau in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It is the law of the land that francophones have a right to education in French while German-Canadians have no similar right.

Interestingly, Yukon First Nations have a right to “draw down” educational authority. But there are few bureaucratic or legal precedents to determine how this would be funded.

To my knowledge, the Yukon government has never offered to fund First Nation education in a way similar to how francophone education is funded. Or offered them per-student funding similar to what Yukon government schools get.

One suspects that, sooner or later, a First Nation will challenge this in the courts, since having a right to draw down educational authority is of limited meaning if it doesn’t come with cash to hire teachers.

The second question will be more difficult to resolve.

What exactly does it mean to be “educated in French?”

Does that mean a totally separate school system?

Do students have to have the same options in French to woodwork, band, drama, photography and calculus?

Does it mean that the extra-curricular opportunities have to be the same in basketball, badminton and chess club?

This one really has non-francophones upset since they know that Ecole Emilie Tremblay already has much lower class sizes than most Whitehorse students enjoy and that high school students there get free laptops and go on expensive trips to places like Bolivia (where Emilie Tremblay students went to do humanitarian work in 2009).

In 2009, Emilie Tremblay had 16.4 educators per 100 students while, for example, FH Collins had 10.2 and Whitehorse Elementary 9.6. The government pointed out in its arguments that the Emilie Tremblay building is 40 per cent empty, which raises the question of why a new school building is needed. All of this means the funding per student at Emilie Tremblay is at least 50 per cent higher than at larger Whitehorse schools.

Building a brand new francophone-only high school with a full complement of shop, music and other programs for the 46 Emilie Tremblay high school students would be very expensive, even in a place where government boondoggles are part of life.

You could make the “build it and they will come” argument that there would be a lot more than 46 students if the school had more programming.

The 2006 census said that there were 60 15- to 19-year-olds in Whitehorse with French as one of their mother tongues. Several non-French-first-language families send their children to Emilie Tremblay, and perhaps the school could attract more of these.

But “build it and they will come” is a shaky business case for the expenditure of millions of scarce tax dollars. Emilie Tremblay would still suffer from the teenage social catch 22 that several high school students described to me: kids don’t want to go there because the peer group is so small, and the peer group remains small because no one wants to go there. This is a real challenge for a school where 46 students means an average of nine kids per high-school grade.

So what the Yukon government has to figure out is a plan that will meet francophones’ rights to a French education without being absurdly expensive at the cost of English, Catholic and French Immersion programs. This probably means a compromise that no one will be happy with.

One option is to convert the current Department of Education building by the hospital into a francophone high school. It was built originally as a community college so has a good layout. It could be a French-only high school, but the kids could zip across the street to FH Collins for French shop and gym classes. The Department of Education could move to the spare rooms in Emilie Tremblay or other surplus government space. Given the Department of Education’s performance in recent years, many principals and parents might suggest the unused jail building in Teslin.

Another option is presented by the new FH Collins itself, which is currently working slowly through its multi-year planning phase. Many modern schools are built to accommodate multiple “academies” or “learning communities” and this principle is being built into the new FH. The new Thunder Mountain High in Juneau, for example, has one academy for Grade 10-12 students focused on math, science and technology and another for fine arts, humanities and business.

Essentially the school is built so each community has its own space so that students can spend the bulk of their time with a team of teachers and students with similar interests and goals. But they are all in the same facility for common classes like gym, Mandarin or metal work.

If one of the learning communities at the new FH was the francophone high school then that would open lots of opportunities to use FH’s shop, music and gym facilities with French teachers. The fact that almost half of FH students are French Immersion would also help get scale to justify more French-speaking teachers, programs and activities. This is important since specialized teachers become more important in high school. It becomes difficult for a high school teacher in a small school to simultaneously cover history, French literature, biology and calculus.

While having 46 francophone students at FH would be good for all the students, it is probably the francophone program that would benefit the most. Teenage francophones could choose to be educated in French, but at a school with a full range of programs and a big and diverse social community.

For this to work, however, the Department of Education would have to be creative and flexible. And the francophone school board would have to give up its hopes of having a school system almost completely separate from French Immersion and English-stream students.

It would be a big shift for both organizations. But if they don’t come up with a creative compromise, we are doomed to see millions of tax dollars disappear into legal fees as each side appeals its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

That won’t make taxpayers or parents happy, whether they are English or French.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and is former chair of the Whitehorse Elementary School Council and member of the FH Collins School Council.