Education

Fighting for French

A new report takes aim at barriers to bilingualism for Canadian students

John Schofield August 28 2000
Education

Fighting for French

A new report takes aim at barriers to bilingualism for Canadian students

John Schofield August 28 2000

Fighting for French

Education

A new report takes aim at barriers to bilingualism for Canadian students

To Heather Sabbagh, it seemed almost un-Canadian. For nine years, her son, Jesse, thrived in French-immersion classes. But when he reached high school two years ago, his quest to become bilingual was suddenly cut short. By official edict, the bus between school and his home in the rolling hills of Caledon, north of Toronto, was cut off after Grade 8. To avoid a long drive, Sabbagh grudgingly opted to place her son in a gifted program, which guaranteed transportation for all students. The experience was so frustrating, she says, that the family will likely switch to another board if French immersion is not accessible for her daughter, Sariana, when she reaches high school in four years. “This policy cuts a lot of kids out,” says Sabbagh, 50. “It should be the right of every Canadian child to have a quality bilingual education.”

But there are still many barriers to achieving that goal, says a report scheduled for release on Aug. 23 by Canadian Parents for French (CPF), the country’s

largest advocacy group for French-as-asecond-language education. By coincidence, the study appears only days after Quebec Education Minister François Legault said the province must improve the teaching of English in French schools. In the rest of Canada, the quality of French instruction can vary widely from school board to school board, says the CPF report. It calls on the provinces to ensure uniform standards and universal accessibility, and to make French part of the entire core curriculum. At the same time, the report argues, action must be taken to avert a shortage of French teachers, which is already affecting some school boards. And Ottawa and the provinces should make sure that the millions of dollars they give school boards each year for French programs are spent for that purpose. “If you don’t demand greater accountability, the boards spend the money as they see fit,” says Paul Caron, a retired school-board official in the Ottawa area and a contributor to the report. “It may be legitimate, but it’s not fair to make French programs suffer.” Critics say a deal signed by Ottawa and the provinces last February is a step in the right direction. Under the agreement, five-year plans for official-languages education will be submitted to

the Department of Canadian Heritage, likely by this fall. To secure continued funding, the provinces will have to provide financial statements and statistics to prove they are meeting their goals.

Despite the deal, the success of language programs rests primarily with the provinces, which control education. They already contribute the lion’s share of the funding. While Ottawa increased its budget for official-languages education last year, its contribution has dropped by more than half in the past 10 years, forcing provinces to pick up the slack. Some are even expanding their second-language programs. Alberta plans to boost the percentage of Grade 12 students completing a second language course from the current 23 per cent to 33 per cent by 2005. For most students, that second language will be French. In Quebec next year, francophone students will start studying English in Grade 3 instead of Grade 4 in a bid to better their skills, and Legault has ordered a report due this fall to investigate further improvements.

Still, the CPF report sounds an alarm over wavering provincial support. Amid charges that French immersion is elitist, New Brunswick is conducting a review of its French-second-language program. And most provinces are still reluctant to bar school-boards from spending money allotted for language instruction on other areas—a restriction that often applies to programs such as special education.

For most Canadians, however, the value of bilingualism seems indisputable. Eighty-seven per cent of the 1,400 people questioned in a Compas Inc. poll last spring commissioned by CPF said they believe the ability to speak a second language is very important. Employers seem to agree. In a contest between two equally qualified candidates, the job often goes to the person with a second language, says Kieran Longworth, a Calgary recruiter. “It opens so many doors for your kids,” says Sabbagh. And in the age of globalization, many parents are fighting to keep them open.

John Schofield