North

Judge orders N.W.T. minister to reconsider case of child denied French school admission

A Yellowknife mother and the N.W.T.'s French school board are welcoming a court decision ordering that the territorial education minister reconsider her refusal to admit a child in the city's francophone school. 

Minister Caroline Cochrane did not consider all proper criteria in her decision, judge says

École Allain St-Cyr is one of two French schools in the N.W.T. The other is École Boréale in Hay River. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

A Yellowknife mother and the N.W.T.'s French school board are welcoming a court decision ordering that the territorial education minister reconsider her refusal to admit a child in the city's francophone school. 

They hope that this time, Education Minister Caroline Cochrane will allow the child to enroll in École Allain St-Cyr in September.

According to Cochrane's initial decision, the child was refused registration because he does not meet the criteria governing the eligibility of non-rights holder parents. A "rights holder" is a person who has a constitutional right to minority language schooling under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In his ruling, Northwest Territories Supreme Court Justice Paul Rouleau concluded that the minister did not consider all the relevant factors in her decision.

Although the admission of non-rights holder children is governed by the criteria the minister used to justify her refusal, they are not binding and the final decision is at her discretion.

Referring to other decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada, Rouleau reiterated that section 23 must promote the vitality of the community and prevent its cultural and linguistic erosion.

Rouleau noted that the minister should have taken those factors into consideration.

According to the family's lawyer, Francis Poulin, the judge's decision will serve as a reminder that section 23 of the Charter must be taken into account in all decisions regarding education.

"We see in the facts that the French community suffers a rate of assimilation. So we have to take all that into account when interpreting section 23 and making decisions in education," Poulin said. 

This court decision doesn't guarantee that the child will be able to attend French school next year. According to the Education Department's policy, the minister now has 10 working days to answer the admission request.

Simon Cloutier, president of the Commission scolaire francophone des Territoires du Nord-Ouest, says that while he's pleased with the judge's decision, he's disappointed that the case had to be brought to court. (Mario de Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The government could also appeal the decision in the next 30 days. 

However, the family is both excited and hopeful about the decision, said Poulin.

"There is hope that once the minister reconsiders the decision she will see that this case here is particularly good for the child, for the family, and for the school, and that this time, she will approve the application for admission."

Criteria too strict: school board

Since the tabling of a ministerial directive in 2016 that established criteria governing the eligibility of non-rights holder parents, the Commission scolaire francophone des Territoires du Nord-Ouest has been clear about its desire to renegotiate admissions management with the territorial government.

The school board's president, Simon Cloutier, says he is satisfied with the decision, but deplores the fact that they had to bring the case to court. 

"I think this decision confirms that we have to sit together, in the coming months or following the next territorial election, to review the application of the directive to make it more fluid and easier to apply," he said.

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