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Francophone court fight done, for now

The closing arguments of a court battle that pits the Yukon's francophone school board against the territorial government will wrap up today. It is expected to be several weeks, if not several months, before the judge makes a decision.

The closing arguments of a court battle that pits the Yukon’s francophone school board against the territorial government will wrap up today.

It is expected to be several weeks, if not several months, before the judge makes a decision for the complicated, year-long case.

In the meantime, Marc Champagne will hold out hope the judge will rule in the board’s favour.

He’s the principal of Ecole Emilie Tremblay - the small school at the heart of the dispute. This year, 184 students are unevenly spread across 11 classrooms.

Just 41 are in high school. Class size quickly tapers off as students progress: there are 23 students enrolled in Grade 3, but just seven enrolled in the split class for Grades 11 and 12.

Champagne laments this. Much of francophone identity develops during the teenage years, when students develop a greater appreciation for music and literature, he said.

“They may speak French,” he said, “but they won’t be living it.”

The board contends that many students drop out because of inadequate facilities. As a fix, it wants a new high school built, capable of holding 150 students.

Early plans put the new school’s cost at $15 million. The new facility would stand on the same grounds, beside the existing school, and share a new library, theatre and cafeteria.

The board also wants full control over how the $4.5-million budget for francophone education is spent. Currently, the Yukon’s Department of Education ultimately decides.

The board wants this control, in part, to hire more staff. The judge has already made a temporary order in favour of the board, calling on the government to pay for an additional three staff for this school year while the dispute is sorted out.

The board hangs its case on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees minority education rights. They see themselves fighting assimilation into the English-speaking majority.

“We’re talking about assimilation,” said Champagne.

Territorial officials look at the school’s 11 classrooms and see poorly-used space. One point of contention are two classes of kindergarten students, aged three to four.

(As well as these two K4 classes, the school also offers another, conventional Kindergarten class for students that are five. It has 20 students.)

One K4 class has 10 students; the other has 11. The territory would have these classes merged, to free up one teacher and one classroom. But “that doesn’t allow us to meet the needs of our students,” said Champagne.

Language fluency is learned young. And an early start is especially important in a city like Whitehorse where English is frequently the norm, he said.

The upper grades have small classes that could, theoretically, be rolled together. But doing so would degrade the quality of students’ education, said Champagne. The 9/10 class has nine students; the 11/12 class has seven.

Similarly, the home economics room sits empty for parts of the day. But it would be tough to convert the room into a full-time classroom and keep it as a teaching kitchen.

As it stands, “every room is a multi-purpose room,” said Champagne.

The elementary library doubles as the music room, with a Chinese gong, two keyboards and a music stand pushed to one corner. In the far side of the room, a teaching assistant works with a child with special needs.

The computer lab has become the English class. And the science lab doubles as the shop. It has a drill-press in one corner, and a wooden kayak that’s a class project is propped up on chairs on the far side of the room.

Still, to an outsider, the school possesses enviable resources in some respects. Students get to use slick-looking cross-country skis for gym class.

And, most notably, high school students get their own new, shiny Macbook laptops to take home during the school year, starting in Grade 7.

Champagne admits this looks luxurious. But he insists it’s essential for a school without a library for its high school students.

Champagne grew up in the small town of Bonnyville, Alberta. Then, there wasn’t a French high school to attend. But there is now, after the francophone community sued the government for one. They won.

Because Ottawa shares responsibility in protecting French minority rights, Ottawa helped cover the cost. Champagne expects the same would apply here.

The French school board’s court case rests upon the assumption that once a new high school is built, francophone students will enrol. So it went in Bonnyville, said Champagne. The same holds in Regina, where a new francophone school was recently built, he said.

Champagne envisions a high school population swelling to 150 - enough students to form proper sport teams.

He concedes that some students would peel away, even with a new school, for the bigger crowds of Whitehorse’s English-speaking high schools. But he thinks many would stay.

There are benefits to attending a small school, where everyone knows everyone’s name, and it’s far more difficult to “fall through the cracks,” said Champagne.

“I’m not convinced having your child in a high school with 700 students is a good thing.”

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