French school expansion overturned on appeal

Kristen Campbell/NNSL photo School board superintendent Marie LeBlanc-Warick, CSFTNO President Suzette Montreuil and school board trustee Michael St. Amour were part of the panel that discussed the Supreme Court's rulings regarding the NWT's two french schools.

Kristen Campbell/NNSL photo
School board superintendent Marie LeBlanc-Warick, CSFTNO President Suzette Montreuil and school board trustee Michael St. Amour were part of the panel that discussed the Supreme Court’s rulings regarding the NWT’s two french schools.

The territorial government is victorious after appealing an NWT Supreme Court ruling ordering it to improve school facilities for francophone students while giving French school officials the right to determine who could attend the schools.

In a decision delivered Jan. 9, NWT Court of Appeal judges Jack Watson, Frans Slatter and Patricia Rowbotham ruled Justice Louise Charbonneau was wrong in her 2012 interpretation of a section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees minority language speakers rights to education.

The Commission scolaire francophone had hoped to expand its school in Hay River, Ecole Boreale, to include a gymnasium, shop facilities, a science lab and other additions, but the GNWT’s successful appeal puts those plans in jeopardy.

The appeals judges also rescinded the Supreme Court’s ruling giving the school board the power to decide who can attend its schools.

“The trial judge erred in her interpretation of Section 23 and erroneously inflated the powers of the school board, elevating it to a government institution,” the judgement read. “In our view, even the most generous interpretation of Section 23 cannot mean that the school board has unilateral power to admit anyone to its schools without governmental oversight.”

Section 23 protects the rights of minority language speakers, in this case French, to an education in that language, but the criteria for whom it applies to is specific. If the students started in French, they must be allowed to continue in that language, or, alternately, if one or both parents were educated in French. An admissions policy enacted by the school board in 2002 leaned heavily on Section 23, which could be interpreted to allow for enrolment based on an ancestral claim with the goal of making up for lost generations and revitalizing the local francophone community.

Essentially, the 2012 ruling upheld the French school board’s claim that a ministerial directive limiting the enrolment at Ecole Boreale was unconstitutional. The court of appeal overturned that decision, arguing Charbonneau’s interpretation of Section 23 was too broad, allowing non-rights-holding students into the French system. From there, other parts of the case based on the needs for a growing school and student body were rendered moot.

“The trial judge recognized that much of the increase of the student population at Ecole Boreale after the implementation of the 2002 admissions policy was the result of the enrolment of students whose parents were not Section 23 rights holders,” read the ruling.

While that admissions policy had capped the number of non-rights-holding students to a maximum of 20 per cent of the student body, the court found that after the new admissions policy was enacted in 2002, the number of rights-holding students — about 40 or 50 — remained constant, while the overall number of students nearly doubled.

On the basis of an increased and still-expanding student population, Charbonneau had ordered the GNWT to expand facilities for Ecole Boreale and Ecole Allain St. Cyr in Yellowknife to a maximum of $28 million in renovations – $13 million of which was to be spent in Hay River.

The Supreme Court ruling led the GNWT to propose a school swap last spring involving Harry Camsell and Princess Alexandria schools but it was widely rejected by residents.

As the ministerial directive limiting the number of students will be upheld, the case for expanding the school crumbled.

“Giving the school board exclusive control of admissions has important financial consequences on the government,” the judgement states. “It is not up to the school board to dictate how public funds are spent.”

The appeals court also granted the GNWT legals costs but the amount has yet to be determined.

The Hub attempted to reach officials with both the Department of Education, Culture and Employment and the French school district but did not get a response before press time.

–Sarah Ladik