Nfld. & Labrador

3 Atlantic provinces say tight budgets justify breaching charter language rights

Governments in three Atlantic Canadian provinces say financial constraints should justify violations of minority-language education rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Francophone school board says N.L.'s dire financial situation could be used to 'systemically' violate rights

Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island all submitted written arguments in a high-profile minority-language rights case involving B.C.'s francophone school district. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Governments in three Atlantic Canadian provinces argue it's reasonable for financial constraints to limit minority-language education rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island each submitted an intervener's factum in a high-profile case before the Supreme Court of Canada involving the British Columbia government, and that province's francophone school board and parents' association. 

The case could set a precedent for reasonable limits on constitutionally protected minority language rights in Canada.

Since 2010, the two sides have been locked in a dispute over whether the province is underfunding its francophone school system and failing to live up to its obligations under section 23 of the charter, which guarantees certain education rights to French-speaking Canadians in minority settings.

B.C.'s government argues high costs mean minority French-language schools in the province will never be equivalent to their larger, English-language counterparts.

In its submission to the court, Newfoundland and Labrador argues, "It may not be appropriate or practical from a pedagogical or cost perspective to require that a minority language school be entitled to directly equivalent programming or facilities.

"There comes a point at which higher costs are simply too high to be reasonable or practical," the factum states.

Prince Edward Island's submission notes "the fair and rational allocation of public funds can be considered a pressing and substantial objective in justifying a breach."

Nova Scotia's factum adopts the B.C. government's position in its entirety. The province's Attorney General Mark Furey said Nova Scotia is intervening because its proportional approach is the one British Columbia is pushing to adopt. Furey said his government wants to maintain the way it operates.

"We have a great relationship with [the French-language school board] and our francophone communities in the area of education," he said.

"This is about preserving the process that we use in Nova Scotia."

Furey said he's not aware of any Nova Scotia francophone group pushing for a change to the model.

Risk of 'systematically' violating rights: school board

In its own submission to the high court, however, Newfoundland and Labrador's francophone school board argued that a decision in favour of the  B.C. government would have serious negative implications for francophone schools elsewhere in Canada.

The Conseil scolaire francophone de Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador's own intervener's factum states that should the court allow the B.C. government to use financial considerations to limit minority-language education rights, Newfoundland and Labrador's government could use its comparatively dire economic situation to "almost systematically justify violations of language rights protected by Section 23."

The board's submission warns schools in less affluent provinces could see a serious decline in the quality of education.

Kim Christianson, the school board's director of education, said the province's francophone school board is one of the worst funded in the country. She said more than half of the francophone schools in the province need serious renovations or repairs.

Francophone board asked N.L. not to intervene in case

Newfoundland and Labrador's francophone school board was the only standalone board in Canada to submit an intervener's factum. Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories also appeared as interveners.

New Brunswick, Canada's only officially bilingual province, decided not to act as an intervener in the Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique v. British Columbia case, telling Radio-Canada that its interests were already well represented by several Acadian groups that chose to participate in the proceedings.

Christianson said she asked Newfoundland and Labrador not to intervene in the case and the province refused.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last Thursday in Winnipeg. After the proceedings, the court reserved its decision, meaning it will deliver a decision at a later date.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Michael Gorman

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