Francophone school feud continues

The Yukon government is hitting back at the judge who recently ordered it to build a new high school for Whitehorse's francophone students. The territory's recently filed statement of claim repeats allegations the judge, Vital Ouellette, is biased and should never have heard the case.

The Yukon government is hitting back at the judge who recently ordered it to build a new high school for Whitehorse’s francophone students.

The territory’s recently filed statement of claim repeats allegations the judge, Vital Ouellette, is biased and should never have heard the case.

Ouellette is a former president of a French-language school board and currently sits as governor of La Fondation franco-albertaine.

These “undisclosed personal and professional” roles as a defender of French-language rights gives rise to “reasonable apprehension” of bias, the territory asserts.

The territory also notes Ouellette “laughed and grimaced” while the government’s lawyer made his case at trial.

These objections were also raised midway through trial in January, when the territory asked the judge to recuse himself.

Ouellette declined, replying that if his background was a problem, it should have been raised before trial. Regarding his exasperation with the government’s lawyer, he said it was unreasonable to expect him to keep his composure throughout a month-long trial.

The territory is also defending its assistant deputy minister of Education, Christie Whitley, who received withering criticism in the judge’s decision.

Ouellette accused her of “bad faith” in her dealings with the school board, and of having “intentionally tried to deceive the court” on the number of francophone students with special needs.

Whitley also “gave the impression she was making up her answers as she went along” and was “simply not credible on certain points,” the judge wrote.

All this is a “mischaracterization,” according to the territory.

Ouellette found the territory trampled minority language rights protected by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

On top of building a new school, the judge ordered the territory to pay the school board $2 million. That much in federal funds, intended to pay for francophone education, was instead diverted into French immersion programming.

The territory defends its spending practices as “a legitimate exercise in policy and fund allocation between two worthy demands.”

The school board insists it was in the dark about these funds until recently. The territory calls this “a palpable and overriding error in fact.”

And it offered numerous objections to the order to build a new high school, adjacent to Ecole Emilie Tremblay.

The school board asserts the high school must have resources comparable to Whitehorse’s anglophone high schools, otherwise students will continue to drift away. Ouellette agreed.

But it’s wrong to compare the facilities at Ecole Emilie Tremblay with English high schools that have student populations more than 10 times as large, the territory asserts.

Students in rural Yukon are expected to learn in split-level classes, with children in other grades. The same should hold with francophones in the territory – especially when so many Yukon First Nations students are struggling, the government maintains.

Ecole Emilie Tremblay currently has 203 students registered, but just 46 of them are in high school. The school board reckons it could attract three times as many high school students if it had a new school.

The territory disputes this. And, in any case, it asserts the judge overstepped his authority by prescribing in such detail how the government must act.

Ouellette estimates there are more than 400 francophone students in the territory.

The 2006 census showed just 190 francophones of school age in the territory. But this number may not be accurate, according to an expert called by the school board, because only one-fifth of the population completed the long-form census, and the count may miss many students with only one francophone parent.

The territory expects the actual number is “significantly lower,” and it complains it was never allowed to call an official from the territory’s bureau of statistics to support its argument.

The school board insists the school is facing a space crunch. But the territory insists this shortage is of the board’s own making, thanks to the creation of a pre-kindergarten program, which resulted in the loss of the school’s music room.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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