20 years of French school boards in Ontario: like owning a house instead of renting

French school boards across the north are marking their 20th anniversary. It was in 1997 when the province moved French language schools out from the control of English boards. But the debate continues about how many school boards the province needs.

Enrollment in Ontario French schools up 14,000 in the last decade

It's been 20 years since French school boards were created in northern Ontario, overseeing schools that had previously be run by English school boards. (Tom Woodward/Flickr Creative Commons)

Ironically, the legislation that created French school boards back in 1997 was called the Fewer School Boards Act.

The Progressive Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris was mostly aiming to cut the number of boards in half, from 129 down to 66, but created 12 French boards—eight Catholic and four public— along the way.

Until then, French language schools were under the umbrella of English school boards.

Marc Gauthier, the director of education for the Conseil scolaire public du Grand Nord de l'Ontario, compares it to renting a home instead of owning one.

Lyse-Anne Papineau, the director of education for the Conseil Scolaire Catholique du Nouvel-Ontario, remembers how before that very little French school business was conducted in French, even though it was French-only in the classroom.

"So it makes it very different because we don't have to always worry about looking at what's going in the English world or English education, rather than what we need and what our students need," says Papineau.

Lyse-Anne Papineau is the director of education for the Conseil Scolaire Catholique du Nouvel-Ontario. (Erik White/CBC)

The debate about the four separate education systems certainly hasn't died down in the last 20 years.

Gauthier argues that Ontario needs more diversity in education not less.

He points to the creation of a fifth school system for Anishabek children as a good sign for the future.

"If you remove this from Ontario, the province is not what it has to be," Gauthier says.

Diane Gerin-Lajoie, the director of the Centre de Recherches en Education Franco-Ontarienne at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says that while the debate about school board amalgamation may never go away, she doesn't expect it would ever happen.

"That reorganization of services would be quite a nightmare," she says.

Marc Gauthier is the director of education for the Conseil scolaire public du Grand Nord de l'Ontario. (Erik White/CBC)

While school enrollment declines across Ontario, the number of kids in French schools has climbed steadily over the last decade.

There are about 14,000 more Ontario students learning in French than a decade ago, although northern Ontario schools have only seen slight enrollment fluctuations in that time.

At the same time, the 2016 Census shows French on the decline in northern Ontario, with fewer people listing it as their mother tongue in the last five years and about 3,000 fewer people in Sudbury alone reporting that they speak it at home.

French immersion programs have become very popular in English schools, including for families with Francophone backgrounds who would probably qualify for French school.

"But I don't think the English schools are stealing kids from the French language schools," says Gerin-Lajoie.

The French boards have admission committees to evaluate whether a child has the right to a French education, the requirement being that at least one of their parents have roots in the language or culture.

"If they have a right to be in the French language, even if they have a few words, we admit them," says Papineau.

About the Author

Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to