It’s already been years, but francophones in the territory are looking to head back to court – this time, to the highest authority in the land.
Parents of students at Ecole Boreale voted overwhelmingly to continue court action and appeal the latest ruling at a meeting at the school last week, joining parents in Yellowknife in an effort to overturn the decision released earlier this month removing all concessions made by an earlier ruling, including massive expansion plans for the French first language school.
“Go for it,” said Yvonne Careen, the superintendent of the Commission scolaire francophone of the decision to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada. “You have nothing to lose. You’ve already lost it all.”
As The Hub reported last week, the NWT Court of Appeals handed down a verdict earlier this month reversing the 2012 of ruling by Judge Louise Charbonneau that had granted the CSF not only control over the admissions policy for the two French-language schools in the territory, but also significant expansions to Ecole Boreale, including a gym and specialized classrooms. In a related case, some expansions to Ecole Allain St-Cyr in Yellowknife were upheld.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruling would be final, but there is no guarantee the case will be heard there. Approximately 1,200 cases apply every year and generally only 10 per cent are accepted.
Careen came to Hay River last week to consult with parents as to what the next steps should be, but also to talk about concerns from Boreale’s principal, Stephane Millette.
“I am worried that this school will close, I have to be honest,” he said. “Next year, we’re anticipating about 30 kids in the elementary school and about 55 kids at the high school level.”
With intake under the ministerial directive limiting admissions to Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms hovering between three and five new students in kindergarten every year, classes will likely have to be redistributed to combine three grades into one room.
The GNWT, on the other hand, sees the latest decision as a victory.
“I would certainly say the government is generally quite pleased with the decision,” said Maxime Faille, the lawyer representing the Department of Education, Culture and Employment on this matter.
He also said that the case in Hay River specifically is an anomaly in Canada, as far as he has seen, whereby the student population has been so inflated by the admission of non-rights-holders as to seemingly justify an expansion.
“I am not aware of another case where the situation is so glaring,” he told The Hub last week. “Very arguably, their numbers didn’t warrant the school in the first place, didn’t warrant the school board in the first place … The government has a responsibility to balance the needs of certain groups and I think the court of appeals recognized that.”
Faille did point out, however, that the argument is simply one of scope.
“I want to emphasize that in all my discussions, all my observations, it’s never been a matter of not wanting to provide French language education in the territory,” he said, adding that the GNWT has been willing to support French schools, just not on the scale demanded by the commission.
For many in the francophone community however, that support has not been enough. Millette spoke last week of ancestral claims to francophone heritage, of street-names bearing evidence of deep French roots in the community and the multitude of families trying to get their children into Boreale.
“With all the complications the original families who started this school faced, to have this setback, that says a lot,” he said. “It says it can’t happen anywhere in the territory outside of Yellowknife. It says a lot about bilingualism in Canada, if the final decision comes down against us.
“It’s huge. It’s not about a gym.”