Statement made on 28 March 2012 by Senator Claudette Tardif
Hon. Claudette Tardif (Deputy Leader of the Opposition):
Honourable senators, I rise today at the invitation of Senator Rose-Marie Losier-Cool, who encouraged us to participate in a debate on the inquiry on the evolution of education in the language of the minority. I would like to thank our honourable colleague for this excellent initiative.
I will be talking about a part of the history of my community, the Franco-Albertan community, as I recount the story of its struggle to access education in French. This narrative continues to unfold and is at the heart of the very identity of my community and has deeply affected me throughout my career.
It is the story of the struggles and the perseverance of a community that understood that schools are vital to the survival of its culture and its language, as well as to the personal development of its members. These past struggles have made it possible today for more than 5,000 Franco-Albertan students, including my own school-aged grandchildren, to receive an education in their own language. I would like to remind you just how difficult this journey has been.
I will give you some historical dates as reference points and will divide the time covered by my speech into five periods: first, the period before 1892; second, the period after the 1892 legislative changes; third, the period after the 1925 ordinance; fourth, the 1960s and 1970s; and last of all, the period after the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.
The first French schools were established in Alberta in the 1860s by Catholic missionaries. At the time, Alberta was part of Rupert's Land, which was under British control. However, Rupert's Land was administered by a private company, namely the Hudson's Bay Company, which practised bilingualism out of respect for the anglophone and francophone communities that were quite present in the territory.
French was the first European language spoken in the territory. More than 500 French names still connect Alberta to its francophone roots: Morinville, Legal, Bonneville, Jean-Côté, Fahler, and so on. They underscore the contribution of the first francophones to the development of Alberta.
The church, including the Oblate Fathers and the Grey Nuns, played an important role in the development of Western Canada. The Grey Nuns, a congregation of Catholic nuns from Quebec, established their first school in 1859, in Lac Ste. Anne, and a second one at the Lac La Biche mission three years later. That same year, in 1862, Father Albert Lacombe established a school in Fort Edmonton. These three schools marked the beginning of French Catholic education in Alberta.
In 1870, the vast territories in Western North America, including Rupert's Land, were transferred to Canada and called the North-West Territories. Under the North-West Territories Act of 1875, a public school system was set up. The act allowed religious minorities, be they Catholic or Protestant, to establish separate schools funded independently through a tax. Since Catholics at the time were francophone for the most part, the legislation fostered education in French. It allowed for the establishment of separate Catholic schools and school districts where French was the language of instruction.
Honourable senators, as history classes remind us today, at the turn of the 20th century, the people who developed Western Canada had a vision for the country that was British and English. They did what they could to make that vision a reality, including developing an immigration policy and bringing in legislation and regulations that made English the mandatory language. An 1892 ordinance changed the existing education system and made English the official language of instruction in all schools in the North-West Territories.
The use of French as a language of instruction was no longer permitted in public schools as of 1892.
However, legislative changes made in the early 20th century allowed for the use of French in primary courses when the students did not understand English. More specifically, the legislative changes ensured that any school board could authorize the limited use of French during a year of primary school and could raise the money needed to pay the teachers' salaries.
The time allocated for primary courses varied from half an hour to an hour or more per day, and each school's schedule had to be approved by a school inspector. Since French was not a mandatory subject and there were no French exams, anglophone inspectors did not hesitate to reduce the time spent on teaching French.
That is how things were when my maternal grandparents raised their children. Rosario and Ernestine, who were both from Quebec, moved to Alberta, where they met at the beginning of the 20th century. They did not speak English when they arrived in Alberta, yet they had to raise their children in an anglophone community with very little institutional support to help them maintain their French language and culture. None of their children received an education in French.
In addition, once the children started school, they were made fun of by the other children and even sometimes by the teachers because of their French accents. That being said, all of Rosario and Ernestine's children and most of their grandchildren kept their mother tongue, but there is no doubt that this was a major challenge. Their story is similar to those of many other francophones, particularly the many French-speaking immigrants, mainly from Quebec, who moved to Western Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1925, in response to lobbying by the francophone community, new ordinances were issued with regard to French primary courses. From that point on, if the school board allowed it, francophone students could go to school in French for the first two years of their education, with the exception of one English reading class. However, as of grade 3, students were unable to receive more than one hour a day of instruction in French.
Despite the 1925 ordinance, many teachers offered bilingual instruction only in grade 1, whereas others started teaching in French at the beginning of the year but then quickly changed to English. In addition to the fact that the law placed considerable limitations on teaching in French, the so-called bilingual schools also faced pressures that caused some school boards and teachers to put more focus on teaching in English.
First, the inspectors who evaluated subjects taught in English tended to associate poor academic performance with the fact that students were learning French. When the inspectors reported to board members, that allowed them to justify the need to dedicate more time to teaching English.
Another problem resulted from the beliefs of many francophone parents. Some believed that strong knowledge of English would help their child become successful, and others questioned whether French was even useful in an anglophone setting. In addition, schools had to cope with a constant shortage of bilingual teachers.
Following the 1892 ordinance, francophone Catholics were no longer allowed to train and certify their own teachers, and teachers' colleges in Alberta did not offer teacher training courses in French. School boards tried to recruit Catholic teachers from Quebec, but Alberta's education ministry refused to recognize their teaching certificates.
So board members who wanted to keep their schools open often had to hire non-francophone teachers. Under the circumstances, the private school system was one of the survival tools that Franco-Albertans developed. Edmonton's Collège des Jésuites was established in 1913. The Académie Assomption for girls was established in 1926 by the Sisters of the Assumption. In 1908, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate established the Juniorat Saint-Jean for young men, which became known as the Collège Saint-Jean in 1943 and is now the Faculté Saint-Jean, a francophone university campus that offers a number of undergraduate and graduate degrees and where I once served as dean.
I myself had the opportunity to receive the majority of my schooling in private institutions, first with the Grey Nuns, then at Académie Assomption. These institutions were required to teach some school subjects in English, and they had to follow the provincial curriculum. However, I was taught by francophone nuns in a francophone environment. The private school system played a fundamental role in the preservation of the French language and culture for many Franco-Albertans like me.
However, francophone families that wanted to educate their children at private institutions had to make sacrifices. For instance, in my case, my parents were forced to bear a significant financial burden so I could attend such schools. Furthermore, I had to leave our family home at age six in order to go and live in a convent to learn French. In addition to those obstacles, these private institutions — which only boys could attend initially — were not accessible to everyone and were more likely to meet the needs of the elite.
In addition to private schools, I would also point out that, throughout the 20th century, the political fight for French schooling was spearheaded primarily by the Association canadienne-française de l'Alberta, which remains to this day the central organization in the Franco-Albertan community. Educational support was provided by the Association des instituteurs bilingues de l'Alberta, founded in 1926, then by the Association des éducateurs bilingues de l'Alberta as of 1946.
Prior to 1965, Alberta's Ministry of Education provided no pedagogical support for the teaching of French, so those associations oversaw curriculum development in French and the development of cultural activities. All of this work was carried out by volunteers, often on Saturdays and Sundays.
It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that changes were made to the provincial legislation to allow teaching in French. In 1968, education legislation was passed to permit French-language instruction for up to half the school day, and up to 80 per cent of the school day in 1976. These changes were motivated by the growing popularity of French immersion programs across Canada in the 1970s. Thus, by the end of the 1970s, for all intents and purposes, francophone students in Alberta could now be educated in their own language. However, the government made no distinction between francophone and anglophone students, who were grouped together in the same classes.
Accordingly, between 1968 and 1982, a growing number of young anglophone and francophone students were in the same classes in immersion programs. Until the end of the 1970s, it was widely believed in Alberta that the French immersion program was beneficial for francophones. Thus, there was little opposition to allowing francophone and anglophone students to go to the same schools, and sometimes even to be in the same classes.
Unfortunately, this experience demonstrated that immersion schools served as a vector for francophone assimilation, since those schools had not been intended for students whose mother tongue was French, but rather for students whose mother tongue was anything but French.
In this context, a number of parents and stakeholders believed that the French immersion model did not meet the specific needs of students whose mother tongue was French.
In order to stop assimilation and reinforce the francophone cultural identity, Franco-Albertans called for their own schools, schools that would specifically serve the francophone community. In 1982, a group of francophones from Edmonton known as the Bugnet group asserted that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which had just been enacted, gave them the right to separate French-language education. The Bugnet group took the provincial government to court, claiming that it was depriving them of legitimate rights guaranteed by section 23 of the charter. This was the beginning of a long journey that ended at the Supreme Court of Canada in 1990.
At the same time, in the 1980s, another association, the Société des parents francophones pour des écoles francophones à Edmonton — of which I am proud to have been a member — was established in Edmonton. While the Bugnet group was focusing its efforts in the legal arena, our association was pressuring the Edmonton Catholic School Board to set up publicly funded French Catholic schools. In 1984, our efforts began to produce results, with the opening of two French public elementary schools, one in Edmonton and the other in Calgary.
However, francophones still did not have a separate high school. The Société des parents francophones continued to lobby. It organized meetings, petitions and visits to administrators and politicians. In 1988, parents even occupied the offices of the Edmonton Catholic School Board for two days. That same year, the school board finally established separate programs for francophone high school students in Edmonton.
In March 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Alberta School Act was inconsistent with section 23 of the charter and ordered the provincial government to revise its legislation. The court confirmed the right of francophones to have their own schools and independent control over those schools. In March 1994, the Franco-Albertan community held its first French school board elections in a number of regions in the province. It was an historic moment in the fight for French-language education, and it came more than 100 years after English was imposed as the mandatory language of instruction for francophones.
Honourable senators, I will close by saying that the past 30 years have been full of changes in education for the francophone minority in Alberta. Today, there are five French school boards in Alberta that cover more than 40 schools and 5,000 students.
These changes are the result of lengthy legal and political battles. These efforts brought about not only the establishment and control of separate French schools, but also an awareness, a pride and a greater confidence among Franco-Albertans. Today, the French schools are the cornerstone of a flourishing community that continues to fight assimilation, welcomes more and more French-speaking immigrants and defends the recognition of its language rights.