Hearing date set for fight over French distance education

A long-awaited hearing to decide whether a francophone student studying at F.H. Collins can also take French classes from the Alberta distance education French program will finally take place in September.

A long-awaited hearing to decide whether a francophone student studying at F.H. Collins can also take French classes from the Alberta distance education French program will finally take place in September.

On Monday, Yukon Supreme Court dismissed a judicial review request made by the French school board, contesting the jurisdiction of the Yukon education appeal court and seeking the recusal of its chair.

In January 2013, Sylvie Geoffroy asked for the French school board’s authorization to register her son Etienne Geoffroy-Gagnon in a French language program via the Alberta distant education program.

Yukoners might know Geoffroy-Gagnon for his freestyle skiing achievements – he won three gold medals during last years’ junior nationals competition.

Despite the fact Geoffroy-Gagnon will be graduating in June, the case is going ahead for future students. His mother said another parent is ready to go to court if the tribunal rules in favour of the francophone school board.

The school board refused Geoffroy-Gagnon’s request, arguing that their policy forbids them doing so because he wasn’t registered in a francophone school in the Yukon.

Geoffroy then appealed to Yukon’s education appeal tribunal, a “quasi-judicial body established by the Education Act to hear appeals on issues related to decisions made by the department, school councils or schools,” according to the Department of Education’s website.

Geoffroy-Gagnon studied at the Emilie-Tremblay school and the Academie Parhelie until 2011, when he switched to F.H. Collins.

Both the Yukon government and the school board challenged the jurisdiction of the education appeal tribunal – unsuccessfully.

The school board is also alleging the chair of the tribunal, Barbara Evans, created a reasonable apprehension of bias.

In one occasion the school board alleged she said “Is he stupid or what?” after their lawyer at the time, Roger Lepage, intervened during a hearing because of translation issues.

Francis Poulin, council for the school board, told Yukon Supreme Court the interpreter in the room at the time of the incident was “grossly inadequate” and Lepage had to correct what was being translated.

In an affidavit submitted to the court, Sylvie Geoffroy confirmed the translation wasn’t faithful to the comments.

Eventually a second interpreter was brought in.

Both parties agreed the matter before Judge Ron Veale be heard in English due to time constraints.

Poulin told the court that at times Evans was being dismissive of the point being made by the school board lawyer.

“There was no serious effort that the tribunal understand the issue raised,” he said, despite the translation issues. The chair’s conduct only got worse after the recusal application was made, he said.

“The chair decided the procedure would be expedited; it’s limiting our ability to present a defence,” he said.

In the school board affidavit, Poulin claims Evans “showed disdain for the language rights claimed by the school board and its lawyer.”

She treated the issues of language used during the proceeding as “strategy to delay or as a procedural obstacle,” he wrote.

Poulin said the Yukon Education Act gives the school board the authority to make such calls, and letting the tribunal rule on it would infringe on their management.

He also took issue with the fact one of the people sitting on the tribunal’s panel, Sandra Henderson, testified for the Yukon government in the first trial between it and the school board. She is also the chair of the F.H. Collins school council.

The educational tribunal hasn’t ruled on the recusal application for Henderson.

In her affidavit, Geoffroy contests the bias allegations and the allegations that the chair treated her favorably.

“I believe francophone (people) have the right to choose another education than the one given at the francophone school while learning university-level skills of their mother tongue – French,” she said in an interview.

“Right now, 75 per cent of students who started their education at the francophone school end their high school in English. If on top of that they could improve their French, it would be a plus for them and the community,” she said.

The school board said it wouldn’t comment on the matter.

Judge Veale ruled the school board request – which asked to stay the tribunal June 8 hearing, review the jurisdiction and recusal issue and declare the school board as the sole competent body to rule on the question – didn’t pass the judicial test for such injunction, as the tribunal hadn’t ruled on the case yet.

“This court has no wish to encourage the inefficient multiplicity of proceedings in tribunals and courts but for exceptional circumstances, which I do not find here,” wrote the judge.

He did raise concerns with the fact the tribunal had unilaterally set the June 8 hearing date, without consulting with the school board’s lawyer, and has only planned for a one-day hearing, creating the risk of the hearing being split up if proceedings aren’t finished that day.

“There does not appear to be any urgency for Etienne, who has already lost his opportunity to graduate in French,” concluded the judge.

Today the News was told by the education appeal tribunal that the June 8 hearing had been deferred to September at the tribunal’s request. The education appeal tribunal would not comment further.

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