French school offers ‘living francophone culture’

Tucked away in the Granger neighbourhood, just off Hamilton Boulevard, Ecole Emilie-Tremblay isn't the most visible school in the community.

Tucked away in the Granger neighbourhood, just off Hamilton Boulevard, Ecole Emilie-Tremblay isn’t the most visible school in the community.

In fact, it comes as a surprise to many people to learn that the Whitehorse school offers a comprehensive French-language education from kindergarten to Grade 12.

What does Ecole Emilie-Tremblay offer that a French-immersion program cannot? Exposure to francophone culture as well as language, says Julie Plourde, communications manager with the French School Board.

Under Article 23 of the Charter of Rights, French people in Canada (as well as the English minority in Quebec) have the right of access to their own schools in their own language.

“That article also gives them the right to manage their own schools,” explains Plourde. “So we’re allowed to manage our own program, our own school, our own building, our own staff.”

The fact that there’s a large and close-knit francophone community in Whitehorse helps reinforce the French-language learning, she adds.

Ecole Emilie-Tremblay students participate extensively in the francophone community both locally and nationally, including the yearly French youth parliament for francophone students from across Canada.

Yet, surprisingly, roughly 80 per cent of the parents whose children attend the school are mixed-parent families, with one parent who isn’t francophone.

Any family where one parent has French ancestry is eligible to send their children to Ecole Emilie-Tremblay.

Not only that, but the 180-plus student population is growing – one of the very few Whitehorse schools to do so.

Part of the reason might be the school itself, a bright, colourful building filled with art that opened in 1996.

It’s named after Emilie Tremblay (nee Fortin), a Quebec-born pioneer who arrived in Fortymile, Yukon, in June 1894, thus becoming the first white woman to cross the Chilkoot Pass.

Facilities at the school include a full gym with a climbing wall and a stage for drama productions, a library, and even a mini-radio studio where the Grade 7 and 8 students broadcast their own radio show each noon hour.

One hallway is filled with skis and ski equipment – classes go skiing once or twice a week in winter and participate in other outdoor activities as well.

Uniquely in Whitehorse, the school also offers kindergarten starting at age four, while the high school program, known as Academie Parhelie, provides an innovative curriculum that isn’t available anywhere else in Canada.

That curriculum, now in the third year of a five-year implementation plan, was designed by three of Ecole Emilie-Tremblay’s high school teachers, who were released from teaching duties for a full year to do so.

“We wanted it to be a continuum through all the grades,” explains Jean-Francois Blouin, a pedagogical consultant with the school. “We also wanted to create something that was experiential and that integrated as many subjects as possible.”

The Academie Parhelie experiential curriculum moves from a local focus in the junior high grades to a national and international focus in the higher ones, with trips and activities geared to each level.

Last year, for example, the Grade 11 and 12 students travelled to Bolivia, where they studied Spanish and helped build sanitary facilities for an orphanage.

The Grade 7 and 8 students, as part of their study of early civilizations, re-created a week-long Viking camp on the banks of the Yukon River.

The result, says Plourde, is that “at the end of their studies the students have a better understanding of the world.”

Academie Parhelie students are also required to volunteer in the community outside school hours, in places ranging from the Food Bank to the Mae Bachur Animal Shelter.

The attraction for francophone parents is obvious. But why do mixed-parent families choose to send their children to a French school?

Lucy Steele, who is anglophone, and her francophone husband Alain Masson, who grew up in Montreal, made the decision to send their son Sasha to Ecole Emilie-Tremblay. (Younger brother Felix will follow next year.)

“It was important for him, and important for our family, that the children went to French school,” says Steele, adding that Masson’s mother speaks no English.

“It’s important for our kids to see and to be part of a school where French is the working language. It’s part of a living culture that we’re able to have a little part of here in Whitehorse.”

The school offers a special program for mixed-parent families, including English-speaking meetings of the school parents’ committee.

“Sometimes the English-speaking parent in the family may feel ostracized because everything’s in French and they can’t understand what’s going on,” says Blouin. “We want them to feel part of it because it’s really important that they believe in what we do, and that they see what’s needed for their kid to be successful.”

Nevertheless, cautions Plourde, “We don’t want to be an immersion school that communicates mainly in English with parents, so we have to be very aware of that balance. We want to promote French as a first language, so we have to be the example.”

“At least one parent speaks French in most cases, so the reinforcement of the language is very strong within the home,” adds Blouin. “Outside on the playground the rule is that they must speak French.”

And learning English isn’t a problem. English Language Arts is part of the curriculum from Grade 3 on, and Whitehorse is a largely anglophone environment.

“My kids didn’t speak English until they were three or four, and now they’re bilingual,” Blouin says.

Blouin himself has taught at the school for 18 years – everything from sciences to outdoor education to culinary arts – and sees the fact that “you have to be a jack-of-all-trades” as a huge plus for staff.

“If you want to teach math all day, it’s not the school to work in. But if you’re open and want to challenge yourself, it’s great.”

The elementary and secondary programs each have their own principal, while the staff of 24 comes from all over Canada – Alberta, the Maritimes, Quebec.

As for what the students themselves think, the school’s website ( is full of encomiums.

Michaela St-Pierre says, “I love the fact that at Academie Parhelie, we’re not sitting all day, we do lots of workshops and activities. I especially love the art classes.”

“I like the program because we can work at our own rhythm,” says Emeraude Dallaire-Robert, “and we can easily get help from our teachers if we need it.”

Adds Alexis Miller: “The program lets us travel around the world and lets us have experiences that we couldn’t have at other schools.”

This story provided courtesy of the French School Board.