New Brunswick·Analysis

A scrap over scrapping: What you need to know about the latest fight over French immersion

A political spat over the future of French immersion in the province is a vivid reminder of the complexity and emotion at the heart of the debate. Here's what you need to know about that debate. 

Media report, People's Alliance set off firestorm over fate of second-language education program

Education Minister Dominic Cardy told CBC News the province is not considering scrapping French immersion. Instead, he said they're designing alternatives to the existing program (CBC)

Everything Dominic Cardy said this week he has said before.

That the provincial government is concerned about poor achievement rates among French immersion students. That the province will look at other ways to teach French to anglophone students. And that it will pilot some new approaches in a handful of schools this fall.

But the way those comments were interpreted in one media report, and the way People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin saw them as a plan for "scrapping" immersion, set off a storm.

"I've read what both gentlemen have to say, what Mr. Cardy had to say and what Mr. Austin had to say, and they're not congruent," said Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers. "They're two different stories, so I think it's very important for Premier Higgs to tell us who is correct." 

It's a vivid reminder of the complexity and emotion at the heart of the immersion debate. Here's what you need to know about that debate. 

Higgs is fixated on fixing immersion

Whenever he's asked about bilingualism, Premier Blaine Higgs focuses not on how it affects francophones but on how the immersion program must be fixed so that more anglophones can compete for jobs designated as bilingual.

Higgs has a complicated history with language issues.

Premier Blaine Higgs is bent on making changes to the French immersion system. (CBC)

Liberals paint him as hostile to bilingualism because of his involvement three decades ago with the Confederation of Regions party, but the premier said when he first ran as a PC in 2010 that his views had changed. His four daughters were in French immersion.

Higgs is an engineer; his approach in government is to identify problems and fix them. He wants more immersion grads to be fluent in French, and that's the prism through which he sees the issue. 

The numbers aren't great, but they may not be that bad, either

The most-frequently quoted figure about immersion is from a report by Auditor-General Kim MacPherson last year, which said only 10 per cent of the students who started immersion in 2005 graduated with advanced French or better. Cardy mentions it often. 

But MacPherson's audit pointed out that 75 per cent of the 2005 cohort transferred out of the program before graduating. It's common for many immersion students to drop it when they reach high school, where fewer courses in French are available.

Of those who followed it all the way through Grade 12, 40 per cent had advanced or higher levels of French, MacPherson reported.

Cardy said he's not thrilled with the recent performance scores highlighted in an auditor general's report last year. (Photofusion/Shutterstock)

"Forty per cent is still nothing to be thrilled about," Cardy said Wednesday, though he added his department is working on offering more elective courses to immersion students to keep them in the program through Grade 12. 

New Brunswick Teachers' Association president Rick Cuming said any changes "have to be based on the research we have," and should be gradual, as Cardy has promised.

Cardy's deputy minister knows this issue from the other side

Last year George Daley, then the president of the NBTA, warned against another change to French immersion "because it does create more upheaval in the system," which has seen several major changes already in the last decade.

Daley's now in a position to make that argument directly to Cardy: last fall, after leaving the top NBTA position, Higgs hired him as deputy minister of education for the anglophone school system.

Cardy's French immersion comments are nothing new — but why did they set off a storm?

4 years ago
Duration 2:00
Featured VideoProvincial affairs reporter Jacques Poitras explains how everything Dominic Cardy said this week about French immersion he has said before and sheds light on how Kris Austin's comments were interpreted as a plan to "scrap" immersion.

Cuming said he was glad to see Cardy promise this week that any change will be gradual.

Scrapping immersion is not inevitable, Cardy says

Cardy's own cabinet colleague, Finance Minister Ernie Steeves, suggested last year that it would be unthinkable to get rid of immersion.

"New Brunswick is a bilingual province and we will have a French immersion system," he said after Alliance Leader Kris Austin called for it to be eliminated.

Cardy said again this week that he'll stick with immersion if there's no alternative.

"If we can find a program that will give us better results for second-language training in the province, I can't imagine any New Brunswicker would object to that," he said.

"And if we can't and the programs we have are the best we can possibly get, I would have no problem saying we can keep them."

The Liberals tried this before

The Liberal government of Shawn Graham launched an overhaul of French second-language programs in 2008 under then-Education Minister Kelly Lamrock, who is a friend of Cardy and who has advised the PC government. 

Lamrock first tried to create a universal French program starting in Grade 5, with students able to choose immersion the following year.

Former education minister Kelly Lamrock was one of the recent ministers to overhaul the program. (CBC)

But in the face of protests and a court challenge, the Liberals established a Grade 3 entry point for immersion instead.

The PCs opposed the change at the time and launched a public consultation when they took office in 2010. It recommended a move back to Grade 1, but the Tories didn't implement it.

Meanwhile, the Liberals also reversed their stance under Brian Gallant's leadership, and restored the Grade 1 entry point in 2017.

At the same time, the PCs abandoned their support for Grade 1 and came out against Gallant's changes, arguing that it was happening too fast and there hadn't been enough time to measure if Grade 3 was working. 

Streaming is still an issue

The Liberal rationale for overhauling immersion a decade ago focused on what is known as streaming.

The idea is that immersion creates two tracks of students, those with higher aptitudes who enter and remain in immersion, and those with learning challenges who don't enter the program or who leave it early.

It leads to non-immersion classrooms with higher percentages of students with difficulties, which teachers say can make teaching and learning more difficult.

Critics of the current French immersion system say it creates streaming effects in schools. (iStock)

The Liberal reform of a decade ago was meant to give all students an equal shot at acquiring a solid base of literacy skills before they took on a second language.

Cuming says streaming remains a concern that must be addressed — and must be reconciled with immersion.

"Any re-envisaged model has to also address issues of classroom composition and making sure that the equitable supports are there for students and teachers," he said.

Austin adds to the pressure

Also driving the issue is Austin, who calls French immersion "clearly a failed program," citing the same 10 per cent success rate as Cardy.

The People's Alliance leader says his party supports "some level of second-language proficiency" for all students.

Lowering the proficiency requirement for bilingual government jobs at the same time would then allow all graduates to compete for those positions, he said Wednesday.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin has described French immersion as 'clearly a failed program.' (James West/Canadian Press)

The PC minority government relies on Austin's three-member caucus for support on confidence votes, and last month Higgs called the Alliance leader "very thoughtful and rational." Austin has repeatedly touted his influence over PC decisions.

But Cardy was irritated this week when Austin appeared to take credit for a "scrapping" of immersion that isn't happening, at least not yet. He called it divisive and unfortunate.

Austin said he was merely reacting to "media sources" reporting that changes were on the way. "My reaction to that was positive."

Cardy said he's committed to "make sure we can build an actual bilingual province by having a world class education system that at the very least teaches us the two languages that are the official languages of our provinces."

It's just a question of how.