Some Canadians seek their right to French schools

Small rural Francophone communities are seeking funding for French schools.

Everybody knows that parental involvement in community schools is a good thing.

But the parents of the cole Communautaire Gilbert-Rosset have taken involvement to another level: They built the school with their own funds, and staffed it with teachers, who initially taught for free.

"It was pretty scary at first," says Maurice Hince, a sort of latter-day prairie pioneer. "People said we were a bunch of crazy people, that we wouldn't last six months."

But they had a goal: to exercise their constitutional right to have their children educated in French. Now in their third year, with 24 pupils from 12 families, they appear to have succeeded.

The Gilbert Rosset parents have also sued to have the province recognize their school as an official part of Manitoba's French School Division and fund it properly.

They are hopeful that a January ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, ordering Prince Edward Island to build a French school for its Francophone community of Summerside, despite their small numbers, will be heeded in Manitoba.

In both Summerside and St. Claude, the parents are setting a new benchmark under the constitutional right for children to be educated in their own language in their communities "where numbers warrant."

The two communities are effectively defining how many students are needed before the provinces must fund a French school. Both cases are being closely watched by Francophone communities and local officials across Canada.

Despite the high court ruling, at the moment, provincial officials in Manitoba and PEI have not yet provided full funding, says Annette Labelle, president of the Commission Nationale des Parents Francophones, from her office in Regina, Saskatchewan.

St. Claude is a farming village an hour and half southwest of Winnipeg, founded a century ago by immigrants from France. Today a majority of its 600-plus inhabitants are "Charter right" Francophones, entitled to education in French. But the community is "very assimilated," says Hince. It's a pattern widely seen across Canada as little communities of French-speakers have been overwhelmed by the rising tide of English.

In 1982, however, Canada adopted its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with its guarantee of linguistic-minority education rights "where numbers warrant." This has led to the establishment of many new French-language school districts. These "will not counteract the assimilation [but] will slow it down," says Ms. Labelle.

Manitoba's French School Division, established in 1993, now has 4,100 students, out of a potential 10,000 school-age Francophones in the province.

After the division was launched, a proposal to establish a French school in St. Claude was presented for a vote. It was defeated - because of scare tactics, Hince says, by opponents who claim that a French school would crowd out English-language options.

After the vote, "we were told, 'There's a bus going to Notre Dame,'" Hince says, referring to another Francophone community nearby. "But we felt that wasn't an option.... You don't build a community by sending the kids somewhere else."

Small schools, high costs

The challenge of maintaining small local schools is familiar in rural regions everywhere: Higher unit costs must be weighed against the community-building benefits a local school brings. For linguistic minorities, though, the scale tips more easily in favor of community-building. As the Supreme Court noted in its Summerside opinion, "The school is the single most important institution for the survival of the official language minority."

So a group of parents, including three teachers, launched their own initiative by starting a school in a former Sears store. Louise Gauthier took paid leave from her job at the Notre Dame school to serve as principal in St. Claude.

"The first year we had teachers that were not getting paid," says Hince. "So we put out a national SOS program - we had donations from all over Canada." Nearly $50,000 came in, mostly from small French communities, like their own.

Now, they have their own school building, a pinkish stucco structure with just a maple-leaf flag out front, a gentle hint that it might be a public building; the school is controversial and has no identifying sign.

Cozy atmosphere

Its three classrooms are all multigrade, some grades with only a single pupil. Its cozy, homemade feel was part of the appeal for Louise Lambert, who had been homeschooling her children in French. "We wanted a small school, and we were quite comfortable with the multilevel classrooms."

And it's all in French - from the little boy importuning the school secretary to the directions for care posted beside the fish tank. Ms. Gauthier, a Francophone who grew up in Vancouver, stresses that her school is not anti-English. "We tell our kids we're equally proud of the fact that they speak English as of the fact that they speak French - but we can get English anywhere."

Teachers at Gilbert Rosset are now being paid, while the French School Division assists with rents. Still, officials estimate that there is a shortfall of (US)$10,000 a year.

The Summerside case is widely seen as relevant in St. Claude. "The ruling is still being reviewed within government," says Guy Roy, assistant deputy minister in Manitoba Education and Training, "at some point I would expect the government would arrive at a policy determination."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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