There are few options for francophone students living in Dawson.
This school year, there are even less.
Days before students headed back to school this August, they learned the French-enrichment program at Robert Service School wouldn’t be offered.
“I was flabbergasted, surprised and shocked when I heard about this,” said Josee Savard who has a Grade 5 son in the program.
“It was taken away without any consultation of the parents, or notice. It was unbelievable.”
After hearing the program would be discontinued, she made repeated calls to the Education Department and the school principal. They all went unanswered, she said.
She finally heard something from the principal August 11. Her son started school six days later.
The program gave additional learning opportunities to both francophone and anglophone students from Grades 1 to 8.
Students received 40 minutes of French per day rather than the usual 100 minutes of core learning per week.
Since the program started two years ago, Savard has noticed a big improvement in her son’s French skills.
“His oral, written and reading skills improved tremendously,” she said.
“Now he’s back at school learning how to say sister and brother in French, which he already knows.
“He’s completely bored.”
Savard, along with other members of Dawson’s francophone community, have been fighting for a program like this for the last five years.
News that the program wasn’t being offered, was a “major setback,” said Julie Leclerc who is part of the Comite Franco Dawson (Dawson French Committee).
The volunteer-run committee will be scrambling to offer extracurricular activities to students to practise their French, she said.
It also undermines a daycare program in the works to offer French language skills to toddlers in Dawson.
The program cut doesn’t make sense, said francophone school board executive director Lorraine Taillefer.
The board has been offering additional funding and support to the enrichment program in Dawson for the last five years.
The staffing formula and the number of students hasn’t changed at Robert Service School, said Taillefer.
“Sometimes if you have so many staff members and you get cutbacks or an increase in student numbers you have to make difficult decisions,” she said.
“But that’s not the case here.”
She wanted Education officials to involve the francophone board in their decision.
“I’ve been literally asked to stay out of it by the (assistant deputy minister).”
“They haven’t given us any answers.”
Information from the department has been nonexistent, said Association franco-yukonnaise co-executive director Regis St-Pierre.
“The person in charge of the program wasn’t available over the summer,” he said. “The position has been vacant since January 2008.”
Since the department put in a new program director at the end of August, St-Pierre has called the department several times looking to speak to him.
“He hasn’t returned my calls,” said St-Pierre.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been (in your job) for 20 years or one day, he should be able to say why the program is cancelled.”
Sure, there were challenges with the program, said St-Pierre.
Scheduling conflicts and fluctuating student numbers made the program difficult to administer, he said.
“If there are challenges, you need to find solutions and find more support, not get rid of the program.”
The program hasn’t been cut, it’s just under review, says the department.
A report by the program’s teacher recommended the department try a new enrichment format, said Education assistant deputy minister Christie Whitley.
So too did a review the following year of all French-language services administered by the department.
“We’re just following through with the review process and looking at improving it,” said Whitley.
The department has known since January that the program model would be changed, she said.
But the department wasn’t able to do anything because it “lacked the personnel to carry forward the review.”
The program needs to be tweaked, she said.
In the first year, numbers for the enrichment program were as high as 27. But in the following year, those numbers dropped substantially, she said.
Part of the reason is that popular electives were scheduled at the same time as the French-enrichment program.
But it’s not as easy as just changing the schedule.
“All the timetabling in elementary and secondary school is very complex,” said Whitley.
In the coming weeks, department staff will travel to Dawson to consult with parents.
Interest in French-language programming has been growing exponentially in the Yukon.
The first French program in the territory had only 13 students when it was started back in the ‘80s, said St-Pierre.
Now there are more than 700 students taking immersion and full French programming in the Yukon.
Contact Vivian Belik at