Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 22, 2004
Francophone district marks 10 years
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Francophone education in Alberta has come a long way since the North-Central Francophone School Authority was set up a decade ago. Not only have school facilities, enrollments and staff doubled since then; so has francophone pride.
"There is an enormous amount of pride in the francophone community that this institution that they started 10 years ago has really grown," said superintendent Henri Lemire. "After all, this (school board) is the only form of government that francophones have."
The Alberta government set up the francophone school authority in 1994 following a 1990 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that obliged provinces to establish a governance structure where the linguistic minority could govern its own schools. Alberta has five francophone regional authorities out of a total of 31 across Canada.
Francophones in Edmonton began the celebration of their board's 10th anniversary March 10 with a press conference at the board's headquarters, 301, 8627-91 St. More than 70 people attended the event, including members of the media, trustees, administrators, teachers and some parents. Celebrations will continue over the next eight months with poetry and visual arts contests, a gathering in the park for francophone families, a May 29 music show, several special anniversary activities Sept. 1-15 and a November gala.
The francophone school authority was started with five elected officials and a territory covering all of Edmonton and an area running through Jasper in the west and to Lloydminster in the east, explained Denis Tardif, the board's first chair, from 1994 to 1999.
"It began on the 15 of March of 1994 with no employees, no board office, no furniture, no computers, no nothing."
The new board had to essentially put together a school district in five months, explained Lemire. "Between April and September 1994 they had to transfer four schools from Edmonton Catholic to the new francophone school district. They also transferred the fifth school in Legal. They had to recruit staff and recruit students that would join this new francophone school district. So they had quite a challenge on their hands."
Today the francophone regional school authority has a seven-member blended board, which includes one public trustee. "Since there are Catholics and non-Catholics within (the francophone school system), there has to be a trustee that is non-Catholic," Tardif noted.
The situation is different in Calgary, where there are two boards - a francophone Catholic board looking after Catholic schools and a francophone public board looking after public schools.
Currently the Edmonton-based francophone board has 11 schools, nine of them Catholic, with a total of 1,730 students, almost double the 934 students it had when it started 10 years ago.
Six of the schools are outside Edmonton - in Legal, St. Albert, Red Deer, Fort McMurray, Wainwright and Jasper. The newest school is St. Albert's Ecole La Mission, which opened in October.
The public schools in the district are Gabrielle-Roy in Edmonton and Ecole Desrochers in Jasper.
With a staff of 200, including teachers and central office staff, the board is the largest francophone employer in Alberta.
The francophone school authority is also big on transportation with 72 bus routes for its 1,730 students.
"We transport for quite a distance," Lemire said, noting the board brings students to Edmonton from places like Devon, Westlock, Vegreville, Redwater, Spruce Grove and Stony Plain.
"Some of them are in the bus for three hours a day. We transport 90 per cent of our students. Our budget for transportation is over $2 million on an $18 million budget."
A brave move
Ten years ago Adele Amyotte was a young French-speaking teacher with Edmonton Catholic. When the francophone board was formed, she jumped ships despite the risks involved.
"I was in my second year of teaching at the time so as a teacher I made the choice to support francophone education and to do my part and contribute to its growth," she said after the news conference.
"What it meant for me as a teacher and my students and their parents was that finally we had an education system that met our needs as far as the language we spoke, as far as our history and our culture and our beliefs.
"For a long time before, the (other) school boards were doing all they could to meet our needs. But because they didn't have quite the same (cultural and linguistic) identity there were limitations as to what point those needs could be met. So this new school board for me was a large step forward in that respect."
Today Amyotte, principal of Ecole Frere Lacombe, is celebrating progress, including progress on a personal level. "At the beginning of the school board I was a beginning teacher and now, after 10 years, I'm a beginning principal."
She thinks it is important to recognize that the francophone school board is the result of a Supreme Court decision.
"It's recognition of an official language minority and that recognition goes out as well to anglophones in Quebec and I think it's a huge step forward in recognizing the rights of everyone in Canada."
Lemire is satisfied with the growth of the district but said there is still much to be done "because there are countless numbers of francophone students whose parents have chosen not to enroll them in our school district."
There are all kinds of reasons for this, the main one being francophone parents' strong allegiance to the Catholic or public school districts where they live. "In other cases, only one parent in the home speaks French, (that's 70 per cent of francophone families), so for some of them the choice of a francophone school is a difficult one and they are not ready to make that choice at this time."
Families that have made the choice "obviously believe francophone education gives them four things: it gives them language, it gives them culture, it gives them a sense of community but mostly it gives them a sense of identity," the superintendent said.
"French immersion only gives you one of those components - the language.
"But you don't learn francophone culture, you don't live in a francophone community and you don't learn to become a francophone. Although I'm a huge fan of French immersion, it doesn't do the same thing; its mandate is different. Our mandate is a four pillar mandate."
Because of that mandate, acceptance of the board is quite high within the francophone community today, noted Tardif.
"The community now has the instruments to reverse the process of linguistic assimilation which has been ongoing for the last 100 years in Canada and particularly so in Western Canada," he said.
Resistance to francophone governance came initially from "the English or the majority community who were interested in French immersion because prior to the existence of francophone schools, francophone and immersion were together in the same schools," recalled Tardif.
"And I think the greatest displeasure was expressed by what I would refer to as immersion parents who were unhappy to see the francophones leave the immersion system in favour of francophone schools. That was probably the biggest hurdle that had to be overcome initially."
Opposition also came from within some sectors of the francophone community, according to Lemire. It was felt mostly between 1991 and 1994, when francophone families throughout the province had to make a choice between remaining loyal to the schools where their children were already enrolled or moving toward francophone education.
"In many communities that was a painful choice," the superintendent recalled. "It did split families, it did split friends and there was some opposition, there is no doubt." But once September 1994 rolled in, "the opposition dissipated very quickly because people then realized that this was for real. The opposition has been gone ever since."
There was virtually no opposition from the so-called "English" boards "because they understood that francophones had acquired a new right and that right should be respected," Lemire said. Consequently, transfers of students and buildings and staff from Edmonton Catholic and the public boards were made quite easily.
Catholic education in the nine francophone Catholic schools functions quite similarly to other Catholic schools in the province, except that it is done in French.
"We do permeation also," Lemire said. "In a sense we have a double permeation as you can well imagine. In those schools (that are Catholic) we talk about permeation of the francophone language and culture and permeation of the Catholic-Christian faith."
Catholic education has remained similar in the francophone system "because obviously the faith is the same," said Amyotte, the Ecole Frere Lacombe principal.
"What might have changed is the fact we can now express it in our own language; maybe that has helped to better explain certain things for students, for teachers and in that respect help deepen the faith.
"Religion is easier to teach and to learn when you are with people who can speak the same language as you and have the same life-experiences."
While many in the community celebrate 10 years of francophone governance, Claudette Roy, a former assistant principal at Maurice Lavallee School, is quietly celebrating 20 years of francophone education in Edmonton.
In 1983, shortly after passage of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which included a section on minority language education rights, Roy and a group of parents petitioned Edmonton Catholic Schools to open a francophone school. At the time, there were five French immersion schools, but no francophone ones.
Francophone parents felt French immersion was not the ideal setting for their children. They wanted more than French classes in their schools, they wanted a French culture.
They were also adamant that it be a Catholic school.
"We got 1,000 signatures on a petition - we got those signatures on the porches of the churches," Roy recalled.
A year later, the Edmonton Catholic School District opened Maurice-Lavallee, the first Catholic francophone school in the city.
Over the years, it would open three more Catholic francophone schools in various parts of Edmonton. All four schools were transferred to the North-Central Francophone Authority in 1994.
Roy was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2001 in recognition of her advocacy for francophone schools.
She speaks highly of francophone education, saying the role of francophone schools is not only to teach students the language, but to develop their francophone identity.
And as far as she has observed, that is happening.
"Students who have gone to francophone schools have a strong sense of identity," she affirmed. "It's helping to stop the assimilation."
Roy said the 10th anniversary of the francophone board "is something for which the community can be very proud. It's better to have control of your institutions than have others determine (your future) for you."
Letter to the Editor - 04/05/04