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French school board wins case
Supreme Court judge orders government to pay for school expansion; says francophone board can decide who enrols

Miranda Scotland
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A judge has ordered the territorial government to allow Yellowknife's francophone school board to decide what students are enrolled in its institutions and is also forcing the territorial government to support expansions at two French schools.

"We are very happy," said Suzette Montreuil, president of the francophone school board, formally known as Commission scolaire francophone de territoires du Nord-Quest. "We see this as a favourable decision that will help us build better infrastructure and provide a greater number of choices in terms of the delivery of francophone education."

Supreme Court Justice Louise Charbonneau's decision was released Friday, after close to a year-and-a-half of court proceedings. The GNWT has been ordered to cover court costs in the case.

Charbonneau ruled that Yellowknife's Ecole Allain St. Cyr be expanded to accommodate 250 students from its current 160, while Hay River's Ecole Boreale will be able to fit 160 students, up from its existing 110. Each school will also get a gym, extra classrooms, specialized facilities for courses such as home economics and expansions to daycare and pre-kindergarten services, among other improvements.

Montreuil said the renovations will help the schools keep up with larger educational institutions in the NWT by allowing them to provide similar services. Currently, students at Ecole Allain St. Cyr have to hike to the Multiplex for physical education classes.

"We want to be able to offer our students the best programming we can," Montreuil said.

The board doesn't yet know how much the expansions will cost but the GNWT is expected to cover the full amount, as ruled by the judge. The decision states the construction should be finished by September 2015.

However, the government could still appeal the ruling. The government is still assessing the decision and won't comment at this time, according to Sue Glowach, senior communications adviser with the Department of Justice.

Charbonneau also ruled that the board should be allowed to decide who is eligible to enrol at its schools as defined by section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Previously, the GNWT made that decision for the board following the introduction of a ministerial directive in 2008.

Charbonneau's ruling referred to the government's previous directive as "unconstitutional." That directive denied entry to immigrant students who do not hold Canadian citizenship, known as "non-rights holders."

"This was a very important component to this victory," said Roger Lepage, lawyer for the francophone parents' association and the francophone school board. He added it was key that the board be given the power to govern access to the schools in order to ensure the francophone culture is kept alive.

Montreuil said there are a number of francophone parents who have lost their ancestral language but want their children to learn French, and the board needs to have the power to grant them that chance.

"If we let that continue to happen eventually the francophone population will just disappear," she said. "We want to take formal measures to help those families regain their heritage, their culture and their language."

The board will consider students who fit in one of three categories: rights holders, anglophones who speak some French, and admission by permission, which includes people who have a French heritage but who have lost their language.

"In the North we have to consider that the francophone communities are dwindling in size," Montreuil said. "So the school is the major agent of change and has played a major role in revitalizing the francophone community so that's how we look at our admission policy."

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