Zut alors! Yukon loses appeal in Francophone court fight

The Yukon government has lost its bid to turf the judge presiding over a Supreme Court case pitting the territory against the French school board. It was a risky legal maneuver that may have backfired.

The Yukon government has lost its bid to turf the judge presiding over a Supreme Court case pitting the territory against the French school board.

It was a risky legal maneuver that may have backfired. In late June, the territory’s lawyers accused Justice Vital Ouellette of being biased in favour of the French school board’s claims that they’re entitled to more power and money. They asked him to remove himself.

Non, Ouellette replied in a January 7 decision.

Yukon’s lawyers noted that Ouellette was a booster for francophone rights in his home province of Alberta before becoming a judge, and that he grimaced and laughed when the territory’s lawyers made their arguments.

But if the territory had a problem with him presiding over the case, Ouellette stated, they should have said so earlier than at the end of a complicated, two-part trial that is to resume later this month. His background was never deemed a conflict of interest when he judged a similar case in the Northwest Territories, he noted.

The territory’s lawyers had better now hope they were wrong about Ouellette’s ability to impartially listen to their case – as their unflattering portrayal of the judge likely hasn’t ingratiated them with him.

The Commission scholaire francophone du Yukon sued the territory in February of 2009, following several years of unsuccessful negotiations with Yukon’s Department of Education.

Things came to a boil after the territory cut several teacher positions at Ecole Emilie-Tremblay in Whitehorse, according to the school board.

The school board wants full control over the roughly $5 million spent annually on francophone education in the Yukon. Currently, the board has a budget of less than $1 million.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees minority language communities the right to manage their own school system, the board asserts.

The board also wants the territory to build it a new high school for francophone students. It contends that most francophone students drift into the territory’s English high schools for lack of adequate resources for French-language instruction in the higher grades.

To staunch this bleeding in the short-term, the French school board has, in recent years, tapped federal money to buy French-speaking high school students their own laptops.

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