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French schooling rights in court

Jeanne Gagnon
Northern News Services
Published Friday, May 14, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - The Commission scolaire francophone des Territoires du Nord-ouest (francophone school board) and the territorial government's opposing views on who can attend the territory's two francophone schools will be settled in court this fall.

The impending court case does not affect the children who have the right to attend a francophone school under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It concerns children who do not have the right to French-language schooling under the charter, known as non-right holders. These include immigrant families in particular, who have moved into the country, but do not have the right because they are not Canadian citizens yet.

The francophone school board has been accepting non-right holder children at both Ecole Allain St. Cyr in Yellowknife and Ecole Boreale in Hay River. Too many of those children are being accepted at Ecole Boreale, said Brad Patzer, legal counsel with the Department of Justice.

"There was concern because the commission scolaire continued to accept children of non-section 23 right holders, despite their concerns that there was a lack of space at the school," said Patzer, referring to a section of the charter that pertains to language of instruction.

"Because the commission scolaire did not, of its own initiative, restrict admission to the right holders, the (education minister) felt that the directive was necessary to restrict the admission of students at Ecole Boreale to its original mandate, and that was to children of section 23 right holders," Palzer added.

So, he added, the minister issued a directive in July 2008, stating that any non-right holder child would need ministerial permission to attend one of the two francophone schools in the territory.

As the school board is opposed to this, both parties are headed to court.

Suzette Montreuil, president of the francophone school board, said the board's aim is "to regain the right to determine who will attend our schools.

"School boards throughout Canada have the right to determine who comes to their schools and all of them have policies that go beyond article 23," she explained. "Those people definitely have the right to attend, but they are other people where it's well justified and it's in the best interest of the francophone community that they come."

The GNWT will argue the education department's directive is consistent with the charter, said Patzer.

"The issue is whether the minister's directive that restricts enrolment to minority language education to the section 23 right holders, whether that directive is consistent with section 23 of the charter," Patzer said. "Of course, the government's position is that yes, it is consistent with the charter."

The school board has received moral and legal support from the national federation of francophone school boards. Director general Roger Paul said it decided to get involved because it's an important case for all school boards across Canada.

"We don't see why the government is intervening at this moment and banning the decision of the non-right holders by the school board," said Paul. Some children, he added, "from now on will not be necessarily accepted since the government is putting his veto right on the admission of non-right holder students."

Montreuil said the federation's support shows they have recognized the issue has national ramifications.

The Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories is set to hear the case Oct. 18, 2010.

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