Losing their language in the lottery: Immersion system frustrates French-speaking Manitoba family

A Brandon father says that the local school division's lottery-style selection process for spots at the city's only single-track French immersion school violates his family's minority language rights.

Francophone's son won't attend single-track kindergarten, as English-speaking students get equal chance

A Brandon father says that the local school division's lottery-style selection process for spots at the city's only single-track French immersion school violates his family's minority language rights. 1:31

A Brandon father says that the local school division's lottery-style selection process for spots at the city's only single-track French immersion school violates his family's minority language rights.  

Paul Alexandre argues that the random selection process for the high-demand spots puts his French-speaking family at risk of losing their first language. 

"I'm saddened and fearful for the future of our family," said Alexandre.

He believes that his four-year-old son, Julien, deserves a guaranteed spot in the kindergarten at École Harrison, the city's only single-track French immersion school, and shouldn't have to compete with English-speaking families.

Brandon School Division chair Kevan Sumner said the lottery system was introduced last January as a result of families lining up, in some cases overnight, outside of École Harrison ahead of kindergarten registration dates. Last year, 55 families applied for 40 spots at the single-track school. 

"The rule is the same for everyone," said Sumner. "There was considerable debate at the board table, we did a round of community consultations to seek input." 

Other school possibilities 'not an option'

Under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians are entitled to have their children educated in their first language of the country's two official languages.

And while Alexandre's son runs the risk of not getting a spot at École Harrison, the Brandon School Division does offer French immersion programs at two other schools — École New Era and École O'Kelly School — but classes are taught in both French and English. 

Alexandre says neither is an option for his son because not enough French classes are offered and a number of the teachers don't speak French. He said he would consider sending his son to either school if more French was offered.

Ecole Harrison School in Brandon is the city's only single-track French immersion school, which teaches classes primarily in French. (Radio-Canada)

However Sumner said there is little difference between the schools.

"It's the same curriculum offered at all three schools, [the] only difference is École Harrison is single-track," he said. 

Alexandre said he feels discriminated against and took his concerns to the Brandon School Division. 

"They're saying, that is the process," Alexandre said. "They basically stonewalled me. … I was very frustrated and angered."

He said he is considering filing a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

Sumner said families also have the option of enrolling in the Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine (DSFM), which has a school in Shilo, Man., about 30 kilometres outside of Brandon. 

For Alexandre, the thought of sending his four-year-old that far away every school day is also not an option. 

"It's too far. It's just too far," he said. "We know what the roads are [like in winter]. This is just not an option." 

No child turned away

The Brandon School Division said no child will be turned away.

"We haven't turned away anybody from French immersion programming," Sumner said. "Everybody has the right and the opportunity and has been able to get into a school, the only question is if they get into their school of first or second choice."

Kevan Sumner is the board chair of the Brandon School Division's board of trustees. (Radio-Canada)

Sumner said class sizes are capped under provincial legislation and École Harrison is at capacity, meaning it's not possible to add more classes to meet demand. 

Alexandre isn't sure how many other Francophone families are in his situation right now and hopes the Brandon School Division changes course and offers families like his a first pick at the spots. He said he's been invited to attend the next board of trustees meeting to voice his concerns. 

His son is currently in an English-only daycare because the city has no French option. 

"It makes me very sad that a huge part of my heritage ... my language in our family might disappear in the next generation," he said. "He's speaking more English than French." 

with files from Radio-Canada's Camille Gris-Roy