Edmonton

Francophone group files suit against U of A, province over Campus Saint-Jean funding

A group that advocates for Alberta’s French-speaking community says it is taking legal action against the University of Alberta and the province over what it alleges is the “chronic underfunding” of Campus Saint-Jean.

U of A says it is committed to supporting post-secondary education in French

The University's of Alberta's Campus Saint-Jean. ( Jessica L'Heureux/Radio Canada)

A group that advocates for Alberta's French-speaking community says it is taking legal action against the University of Alberta and the province over what it alleges is the "chronic underfunding" of Campus Saint-Jean.

Campus Saint-Jean is a faculty of the University of Alberta, and the only French-language post-secondary institution in the province.

The Association canadienne-française de l'Alberta (ACFA) announced its decision to file a civil case Monday, arguing that the failure to appropriately fund the faculty amounts to a violation of a 1976 agreement between the University of Alberta, the provincial government and the province's francophone community.

The ACFA is a provincial body that advocates and oversees services for the French-speaking community. It filed a statement of claim in Edmonton Court of Queen's Bench on Monday. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

In an interview, the ACFA's lawyer, Darius Bossé, said that when the U of A acquired Campus Saint-Jean in 1976, it made a promise to operate, maintain, expand and enhance the school. As well, he said, the province committed to providing funding to make that possible.

The ACFA also alleges that inadequate funding to Campus Saint-Jean contributes to the violation of Section 23 charter rights for primary and secondary instruction in French — because it is the only Alberta post-secondary institution with programs to train French-speaking teachers, and because ongoing underfunding has contributed to a lack of qualified French-speaking teachers in the province.

"Both arguments are very strong. There is a clear violation of both allegations in the pleadings," Bossé said.

ACFA president Sheila Risbud said the association has spent months attempting to negotiate with the provincial government and the U of A about these issues, but said it became a game of "political Ping-Pong."

"Now we're at a stage where we have to pursue a different option," she said. 

Risbud said that ACFA would like to see full per student funding for Campus Saint Jean. She said the faculty only receives provincial operating grant funding for about 500 students but has over 800 students enrolled.

The association also wants assurances that Campus Saint-Jean will not be moved to the main campus from its current location in Edmonton's French Quarter in the Bonnie Doon neighbourhood.

In 2018-19, Campus Saint Jean's base budget, which includes the provincial operating grant along with other sources of funding, was $9.5 million.

The next year, the faculty saw its base allocation cut to $9.2 million even as enrolment rose.

For 2020-21, with enrolment even higher, the faculty was getting about $9 million.

On top of its base budget, Campus Saint-Jean also receives a few million dollars annually through federal grants because it is a minority language school. It also gets some funding through Health Canada and other sources. 

The funding reductions and fears that Campus Saint-Jean may be moved prompted the ACFA to launch a public campaign earlier this year, calling for public support.

University responds

Late Monday afternoon, the University of Alberta released a statement acknowledging the legal proceedings and declaring its "full and ongoing commitment" in partnership with the ACFA and the provincial government to support post-secondary French education in Alberta.

"We recognize the ongoing funding challenges facing Campus Saint-Jean and we are fully committed to exploring all options that can help secure a sustainable and thriving future for its French language programs," president and vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan said in the statement.

"With this goal always in mind, we look forward to continuing to work closely with the ACFA, recognizing the ACFA's central role in stewarding Campus Saint-Jean."

In a July statement, Steven Dew, the U of A provost & vice-president (academic), said that while the university is considering all possible options related to space as part of an institution-wide review of its operations, no specific plans have been made to move Campus Saint-Jean at this time.  

Dew also said the U of A supported Campus Saint-Jean in the wake of the cuts by allowing it use $1 million of existing federal funding that was set to be placed in a reserve.

"This significantly mitigates the reductions in course sections that would have otherwise been required."

Through the federal grant, the school has received roughly $2.4 million a year for the last three years. In a statement Monday, Edmonton Strathcona MP Heather McPherson called on the federal government to live up to its promise to support language rights and Alberta's only francophone post-secondary institution.

With files from Mirna Djukic.

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