New Brunswick

N.B. early French immersion cuts 'unfair and unreasonable': judge

The New Brunswick government's decision to scrap early French immersion programs was quashed for at least a few months by a provincial court judge Wednesday.

Education minister says he'll announce program's fate in August

The New Brunswick government's decision to scrap early French immersion programs was quashed for at least a few months by a provincial court judge Wednesday.

Justice Hugh McLellan, of the Court of the Queen's Bench in Saint John, ruled there should be a judicial review into the cancellation of the early French immersion program, which was offered to students entering Grade 1.

In his seven-page decision, McLellan wrote that the decision to cut the French education program was "unfair and unreasonable."

"The application for judicial review is allowed. The minister's decision to phase out early French immersion is removed into the court and quashed."

Education Minister Kelly Lamrock announced in March that the province was cutting the program in favour of a five-month intensive French program for all Grade 5 students, effective this coming September. In Grade 6, the students would then have the choice of moving into a late immersion program or continuing to take French as a single-class mandatory subject until they graduate from high school.

"The government just got handed a speeding ticket," Michael Wilcott of Citizens for Educational Choice said after the judge's decision.

Breach of contract alleged

The group had called on the court to delay the program's cancellation. The court challenge dealt with two specific children who are currently enrolled in kindergarten and registered to start early French immersion in the fall, but the case will affect the entire province.

Lawyers for parents Paula Small and Patrick Ryan, whose children were registered for the program in February, also argued that allowing parents to enroll their children in the program and then later cancelling it amounted to a breach of contract.

McLellan said that parents who had enrolled their children in the program for the fall "had a reasonable and legitimate expectation that program would not be cut without them having a real opportunity to be heard by the minister."

The parents' lawyer also argued the cuts violated the right to minority language education that is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. McLellan rejected this argument.

The province's lawyers argued there was no breach of the charter and there was plenty of time for parents to have their say.

McLellan said any future decisions on the program "should be made in accordance with the principles of fairness after an appropriate opportunity for interested citizens and organized groups to be heard."

Jane Keith, of Canadian Parents for French in New Brunswick, said that she hoped Lamrock would not try to work around the court decision in order to axe early immersion in September.

"It wouldn't be smart for him to do so, given that the court has said it wasn't a proper review, it wasn't based on sound decisions and parents weren't given a chance to have input," she said.

Lamrock says he'll announce future of program in August

Later Wednesday, Lamrock said he would announce the fate of the program in early August.

He said he "accepts" the judge's "good advice" and that he was pleased the judge had affirmed that the government has the right to change the education system and that the changes were permitted under the Charter.   

Lamrock said he would set up a website and consult with those affected by the decision. The consultations are set to continue until July 25, with the announcement on whether the program will go ahead in September to be announced on August 5.

He said the six-week consultation period will allow the government "to hear if there are other ideas from New Brunswickers as to how we can meet our goals. For example, making sure we have a higher rate of participation in immersion programs, making sure we have more bilingual graduates, not fewer, making sure we have more equality and equality of access to bilingual access. These are important questions."

Lamrock said the website and discussion document would be ready by the end of the week. When asked why this process was not conducted initially, he said it was an effort to make a real change after looking at numerous reports.

"I was very comfortable that at the time that I had heard everything," he said, adding he was prepared to hear alternate proposals and ideas.

He said he hoped there would be "good conversation" over the next few weeks and that he would keep an open mind.

He said a decision in early August would still leave time to implement his proposals from March for the start of the school year. He said whether another plan could be implemented on this timeline would depend on the details of the alternate plan.

Conservative education critic Madeleine Dube said the Liberal government is just waiting six weeks to please the court and that she doubts the final decision will change.

With files from the Canadian Press