French school board gains control over admissions

The French school board will now be in charge of deciding who can attend school for French as a first language education.

The French school board will now be in charge of deciding who can attend school for French as a first language education.

The Department of Education announced on Tuesday regulations had been changed to delegate power from the Minister of Education to the Yukon Francophone School Board.

Control over admissions is one of the measures the school board has been lobbying for even before it started legal action against the Yukon government in 2009.

But in practice, very little will change, as the French school board has been ruling on admissions over the past few years, though the minister retained final approval.

Now the French school board has the final say.

“It’s something that we’ve planned (to do) for a long time,” Education Minister Doug Graham told the News Thursday. “It was one of those issues that made no sense fighting in court.”

That also means students who don’t fall into the category set out by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms governing minority language rights can apply to attend the school.

Under section 23 of the charter, rights holders are defined as children of parents whose first language is French, or who studied in French.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Yukon could delegate its power to decide whether students who don’t meet those criteria could be admitted to French school.

But there won’t be a “flood” of new students, said Edith Campbell, a board trustee and spokesperson.

As it stands, 91 per cent of students at École Émilie Tremblay and Académie Parhélie, the primary and secondary schools, meet the charter’s criteria.

The board has made exceptions for francophone immigrants and students with francophone ancestry, since the charter only defines Canadian citizens as language rights holders, she said.

Those two groups account for seven per cent of students in the French school system. That leaves two per cent of students in the “anglophone or other language category,” Campbell said.

The school board will have to report to the Department of Education every year on the numbers of rights holders and non-rights holders admitted at the school. Every two years the minister will be able to review whether or not to take back the admission power.

“It comes naturally that we need to have the decision-making power to manage our school properly for us to achieve our goal and mandate,” Campbell said.

Yukon isn’t the first jurisdiction in Canada to delegate admission powers to French school boards.

In Ontario, the government delegated that power to the province’s 12 French school boards, said Roger Paul, head of the Fédération nationale des conseils scolaires francophones, which represents 28 French school boards across Canada.

Paul testified during the 2011 trial between the French school board and the government about provinces who had delegated that authority.

“It’s been a while that our school boards in Alberta manage the admission process,” he said. “There seems to be a certain harmony between the school board (and the Yukon government), more collaboration, and that’s commendable.”

Besides the admission process, the construction of a French high school remains the biggest issue.

Both the school board and the Yukon government have been working on a committee to build the school and a design tender went out earlier this year. The government set out $400,000 in this year’s budget for planning, but the department remains non-committal.

Graham, for example, has never clearly said the school will be built.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education told the News on the Thursday that the construction of the high school was one of the “outstanding issues” stemming from the legal action.

“The (issue of the) high school will be resolved once students can actually attend school in the new building,” Campbell said. She added she’s confident it will happen. “The minister has recently indicated they have the intention to build that school.”

In 2009 the French school board sued the government, arguing it wasn’t fulfilling its duty under section 23 of the charter.

The trial judge, Justice Vital Ouellette, ruled in favour of the school board. But the Court of Appeal overturned the decision because there was a “reasonable apprehension of bias” on the part of the judge. The Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that decision and sent both parties back to the trial stage.

Both parties decided to instead create a settlement committee.

“I don’t think anybody wanted to go back to trial,” said Campbell. “I think it was much better for everybody to sit down and have a real discussion.”

However, the possibility of a trial hasn’t been ruled out.

The school board and the government will be back in court in February 2017, to decide whether to go ahead with a trial, push the decision back, or stop all court proceedings.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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