Court says 'Oui' to French schools

On Jan. 13, a Canadian court told an English-speaking province to set

Madeleine Costa-Petitpas has always encouraged her four-year-old daughter, Mylne, to speak to her Barbie dolls in French. It was to little avail. "She thinks Barbies, like every other doll, speak only English," she says with a bit of a sigh.

Such is life for Canada's French-speaking communities outside Quebec. The Costa-Petitpas family, who live in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, are part of a small Francophone community of about 1,000. For these French-speakers, the threat of cultural extinction, of assimilation into the English-speaking majority, lurks even in the playroom.

Ms. Costa-Petitpas felt strongly enough about the matter to go to court. And now, in a ruling that will have repercussions across this country, the Supreme Court of Canada last week ordered the province of Prince Edward Island to provide a school for Summerside's Francophones.

Call it "separate and equal" if you like - it's exactly what these Summerside parents want.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires that "where numbers warrant," minority-group speakers of either of the two official languages be provided with education in their own language in their own communities.

The province had refused parents' demands for a French school on the grounds that the number of children attending - estimated between 49 and 155 - would be insufficient for the school to be financially viable.

But last week, in the case of Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island, the court ruled unanimously - 9 to 0 - in favor of the parents who challenged the ministry. In its ruling, the court stressed the significance of schools as local cultural institutions.

"It is exuberating!" Costa-Petitpas says, in a bit of Franglais that needs no translation. With their own school in Summerside, Francophone families will no longer have to choose between English-language education in their own community and a long bus ride to the nearest French school. Costa-Petitpas's two sons travel 55 minutes each way to school. For many parents, busing their children out of town makes it difficult for them to participate fully in their children's education.

Montreal lawyer Brent Tyler notes, however, "Provincial governments have been reluctant to provide schools where numbers warrant.... This case is a boon to linguistic minorities."

In some cases parents have set their own schools up with their own funds. In the village of St. Claude, Manitoba, for instance, Francophone parents have pooled their funds and hired teachers and set up a school in a former Sears store. "The teachers are all licensed, they're following the provincial curriculum and all that, but it's an independent school" - not under the governance of a public school board, says Ms. Labelle.

Labelle estimates that Francophones outside Quebec number about 1 million and in the Western provinces, they make up 2 to 6 percent of the population. The PEI case is widely seen as putting Manitoba under pressure to do something for the St. Claude school and is likely to encourage a wave of school building by linguistic minorities.

"If you build it, they will come," says Labelle. Preregistration surveys inevitably underestimate demand for minority-language education, she says, because of "fence-sitters" reluctant to commit their children to a school that hasn't yet been built. She cites a school in Calgary begun in 1984 with 66 students: Three weeks into the school year, the school had an enrollment of 120; today its has over 300.

Nothing in Canadian constitutional law, it seems, is completely free of complicating nuances. Mr. Tyler's language-rights practice includes a group of Acadians in Nova Scotia, Francophones who have been happy receiving bilingual education.

This arrangement is being challenged by what he calls "a minority within a minority" suing for French-only schools. If these plaintiffs succeed, current schools will revert to being English-only and bilingual education will disappear as an option. The minority-education clause in the Charter "has gone from being a right to being an obligation," Tyler says. The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia is expected to rule soon in the case.

And what about Quebec? Will the Arsenault-Cameron ruling make it easier to gain access to English-language schools? The ruling won't apply, Tyler says, because "linguistic communities" are defined differently in Quebec, on the basis of the language in which one's family was educated, not on the basis of one's mother tongue.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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