Yellowknife mother fights in court to get her child admitted to French school

In their application for judicial review, the applicants argue Education Minister Caroline Cochrane misused her discretion by refusing that the child, born in Canada from new immigrants and non-rights holder parents, be enroled in École Allain St-Cyr last fall.

N.W.T. Department of Education decides which non-rights holders can be admitted to French school

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 has teamed up with the French school board to take the N.W.T. education minister's refusal to admit a child in Yellowknife's French school to court.

In their application for judicial review, the applicants argue Education Minister Caroline Cochrane misused her discretion by refusing that the child, born in Canada from new immigrants and non-rights holder parents, be enrolled in École Allain St-Cyr last fall.

A "rights holder" is a person who has a constitutional right to minority language school, under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In the territory, the government has power to decide which non-rights holders can attend the N.W.T.'s two French schools. It's a power hotly contested by the Commission scolaire francophone des Territoires du Nord-Ouest, which argues it restricts the growth of the French schools and community.

In 2016, the minister at the time issued a ministerial directive to establish criteria governing the eligibility of non-rights holder parents.

According to Cochrane's decision, the child was refused registration because he does not meet the criteria of a new immigrant under the directive, which states a child can be eligible if "the parent is an immigrant to Canada, whose child upon arrival, does not speak English or French and is enroling in a Canadian school for the first time."

2 interpretations of criteria

The crux of the case is over the interpretation of that criteria. One interpretation says the child should be eligible because his parents are newcomers, while the other defends the decision of the minister who believes that since the child was born in Canada and speaks English, he does not qualify.

Both parties agree the minister can use discretion in her decision making. The point of contention, however, is who deserves to be an exception.

Francis Poulin represents the school board and parents. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

Counsel for the department believes only unique and specific cases should be allowed through ministerial discretion. He does not believe that the case before the court meets this definition.

According to him, widening the criteria of what is a unique and specific case will lead to a much higher number of children who would be admitted to the French-language schools, and this would counteract the directive's goal to limit the admission of non-rights holders.

Counsel for the mother and the school board, Francis Poulin, opposes these arguments and believes that even though the parents don't speak French, there is no more worthy case than that of the family he represents.

"The family has demonstrated a serious commitment, sustained over a long period of time, to the Francophonie," he said.

"The mother became part of the Franco-Ténoise community, took part in community activities and took classes to learn French. The child went to daycare in French for two years and is fully operational in French. There was no good reason to refuse this admission."

Decision expected before start of 2019-20 school year

After he heard both parties on Thursday, N.W.T. Supreme Court Justice Paul Rouleau will make his decision.

If the applicants are successful, the judge will return the admission file to the minister's office with notes for reassessment. This would still not guarantee that the child be admitted to the francophone school.

Rouleau says he hopes to make a judgment before the start of the 2019-20 school year.

In the meantime, the French school board plans to reopen the debate with the territorial government — in the hopes of getting broader rules of admission — after the October territorial election.