New francophone school on ice

A judicial order for the Yukon government to build a new francophone high school has been stayed until the Court of Appeal hears the case in March.

A judicial order for the Yukon government to build a new francophone high school has been stayed until the Court of Appeal hears the case in March.

Also stayed is an order for the territory to pay the francophone school board $2 million, and to add two portables to Ecole Emilie Tremblay until the new school is built.

But the board will retain greater responsibilities granted to it by a Supreme Court decision in July. And that’s important, said chair Andre Bourcier.

“Of course, we’d like to have everything, like everyone else. But the court was very precise for the reasons why they wouldn’t want the construction to start. It’s really because they feel it would be prejudicial to the government if they had to start, and then the appeal reversed the decision.”

The initial decision called on the territory to build a new high school, capable of accommodating 150 students, within two years.

Judge Vital Ouellette, who made the ruling, decided the territory has failed to provide francophones with their Constitutionally enshrined right to education in their native tongue.

The Yukon government disagrees. And it argues that the judge overstepped his authority by ordering such a specific remedy.

Early plans put the new school’s cost at $15 million. It would stand adjacent to Ecole Emilie-Tremblay, with the two buildings sharing a common library, cafeteria and theatre.

The existing K-12 school has approximately 200 students. Only one-quarter of them attend high school.

The board contends this is for lack of facilities comparable to what’s on offer at Whitehorse’s three anglophone high schools. Emilie-Tremblay lacks a proper science lab, shop and other facilities.

But it’s unfair to compare Emilie-Tremblay to schools far bigger than it, responds the Department of Education. Compare it to small schools in Yukon’s communities, and the francophone school has enviable resources.

The student-teacher ratio at Emilie-Tremblay 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, according to the territory.

The judge ordered a payment of $2 million to make up for what the board describes as the secret siphoning of federal funds earmarked for francophone education to the territory’s French immersion programs. The territory also denies this spending was done without the board’s knowledge.

Midway through trial, the territory’s lawyer accused the judge of bias and asked him to recuse himself, 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.

Bourcier’s pleased the board will continue to have full control over how the school is run.

“You have to see Ecole Emilie Tremblay as a francophone island in the middle of Whitehorse. For us, it’s really important that all our personnel function in French, to show the kids it’s possible to live in French in Whitehorse.

“It’s really important that people feel they control the school. So the paycheque is given in French by the school board. The collective agreement is managed by the school board. We get a budget at the beginning of the school year, and we manage it. It’s not the government coming in and micromanaging everything.

“We’re elected to do all of that management, and we want to do it exactly like it’s described in the Education Act.”

The board will also now be able to decide who is francophone. Previously, the territory decided.

“When I registered my kids in French school, I had to go to the law building and register myself as a francophone,” said Bourcier. “It’s kind of demeaning.”

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.

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