Ottawa

Francophone parents in fight to keep French schools French

Stéphanie Plante has no problem with anglophone children attending French schools — she just wants to make sure her own son gets a chance to speak in his mother tongue.

English dominates in corridors of Ottawa's francophone schools, parents say

Stéphanie Plante, left, and Véronic Bézaire, right, fear there's not enough French being spoken in the hallways of Ottawa's francophone schools. (Raisa Patel/CBC)

Stéphanie Plante has no problem with anglophone children attending French schools — she just wants to make sure her own son gets a chance to speak in his mother tongue.

Plante said her son's classmates at École élémentaire publique Francojeunesse in Ottawa regularly default to English, meaning francophone children like her son aren't interacting in their own language at school.

"When he started in the French public school he spoke only French, and within two weeks I would say he was speaking in English because he wanted to make friends," Plante told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Friday. 

They're more concerned about having big numbers than doing the job they're supposed to be doing, and that's to preserve the French language.- Basile Dorion

Nearly half of the students in Ontario's two French school boards did not list French as their first language during the 2017-2018 school year. 

Véronic Bézaire, whose daughter speaks only French at home, said the predominant language in the hallways at her French Catholic board school is English.

"Her default [language] will become English eventually," Bézaire said.

Making the case

The issue picked up steam earlier this year when Basile Dorion, a Franco-Ontarian and former school trustee, decided to take the province's French school boards to court for admitting too many non-francophone students.

Dorion, who lives in southern Ontario, argued the boards are depriving francophones of their constitutional right to education in their own language. 

Basile Dorion holds up a newspaper ad for French schools — written in English. (Vedran Lesic/Radio-Canada)

"We expect this fall to be able to put our case clearly together," Dorion told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Thursday. "If the school boards do not react positively, then we have no choice but to proceed to court."

Dorion has enlisted the help of an Ottawa law firm to determine if there are sufficient grounds to proceed. He received a $15,000 grant this spring from the federally funded Court Challenges Program, which helps people bring language rights cases before the courts. 

Dorion believes French school boards admit so many non-francophone students to boost enrolment.

"They're more concerned about having big numbers than doing the job they're supposed to be doing, and that's to preserve the French language," he said.

Neither of Ottawa's French school boards responded to interview requests from CBC. 

Other options

Dorion said he has no issue with English-speaking students whose parents want them to learn French, but believes the province's English school boards have a responsibility, too.

"There should be immersion schools all over," he said.

Bézaire is currently drumming up support among other francophone parents to start more French-language activities within their school community.

"Where are francophone students supposed to go to learn in French and to learn French culture?" she asked. "They don't have any other options."

Can't force language

Denis Chartrand, the chair of the Association des conseils scolaires des écoles publiques de l'Ontario, said there are rules limiting when students can be admitted to French boards.

Chartrand said that only happens if they speak French, have francophone parents or pass through an admission process. 

He stressed that process would weed out students who don't speak French and can't get support at home from a parent. 

"Our first goal is the success of the children," Chartrand said. "So if they don't already speak French, then they won't be admitted."

While many students speak English outside of class, Chartrand said the school board can't control what happens when school lets out.

"I would like to see more French in the schoolyards and in the buses, but we can't enforce that."

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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