Francophones hit the jackpot

The Supreme Court of the Yukon has ordered the territorial government to build a new high school for francophones within two years. It's also ordered the territory to pay nearly $2 million.

The Supreme Court of the Yukon has ordered the territorial government to build a new high school for francophones within two years.

It’s also ordered the territory to pay nearly $2 million – money that the francophone school board alleges has been diverted from them to French immersion programs – and to provide the board with more staff and full control over how its money is spent.

“It’s a major victory. It’s a national victory,” said Andre Bourcier, president of the francophone school board.

But the fight’s not over yet. The territorial government plans to appeal the decision and ask for the orders to be stayed in the meantime.

At the heart of the dispute is Ecole Emilie-Tremblay. The K-12 school currently has 203 students registered, but just 46 of them are in high school.

There’s upwards of 430 French-speaking high school students in the territory, said Bourcier. Yet most choose to attend high school at Vanier, FH Collins or Porter Creek.

This, Bourcier asserts, is because Whitehorse’s three anglophone high schools enjoy far more resources than Emilie-Tremblay, which lacks a proper science lab, shop and other facilities.

Build a new high school and francophones will attend it, he said. The board reckons it could create a high school – to be built adjacent to Emilie-Tremblay – with an adjoining library, theatre and cafeteria, and fill it with 150 students.

Francophone minorities are entitled to equal services in their native language, and to control their own school systems, said Bourcier. The court agreed.

Yet territorial officials look at the current school and see a facility that’s only at 60 per cent capacity.

The student-teacher ratio is even lower than Yukon’s average, which is already among the lowest in Canada.

And spending per student outpaces what’s seen at other Yukon schools, said Max Faille, the territory’s lawyer for the case.

“We’re obviously disappointed. We believe the ruling is wrong, in fact and in law.”

Francophones see this victory as the thin edge of a wedge to ensure they receive government services in French. The number of frontline workers able to speak French has declined in recent years, said Regis St-Pierre, an executive director of the Yukon francophone association.

He gives the example of a francophone who wishes to tell the territorial government she’s moved house. Yukon’s Languages Act was first enacted in 1988, yet the online form to change your address is still in English only.

The territory only has a handful of fluently French-speaking workers able to help the public, said St-Pierre. In some cases, service has gone downhill.

The Yukon Hospital Corporation used to offer services in French, in 1997, said St-Pierre, but not anymore.

“So we’re losing, not gaining.”

It probably didn’t help the territory’s case when it accused the presiding judge, Vital Ouellette, of bias. They asked him to remove himself midway through the case, noting that he’d been a booster for francophone rights in his home province of Alberta before becoming a judge.

But Ouellette decided the territory raised these objections too late. And, he noted, his background was never deemed a conflict of interest when he judged a similar case in the Northwest Territories.

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