Oui, je parle francais

Oui, je parle francais

👤Sarah Artis 🕔May 01, 2017

Ever since Madeleine Link was little, she wanted to learn French.

“Maybe because I was in a French daycare,” she says. “I was really worried my parents wouldn’t let me.”

But her parents did, and in 2015, Link graduated from the French Immersion program at Skeena Secondary in Terrace. She left with a Double Dogwood diploma—an English and French graduation certificate.

Learning a second language has been proven to stimulate brain development, and having the ability to speak French can open the door to rewarding opportunities.

In Grade 10, as part of her studies, Link and three other immersion students went on an exchange to Québec for three months. At times, the experience was difficult but Link says she learned a lot. “Overall, it was a valuable experience in terms of learning another culture,” she says.

For her first year of university, Link went to Carleton in Ottawa, partly because she wanted to be in a bilingual environment. While there, she worked at a poll station during the federal election and believes her French contributed to her getting the job. Her French also came in handy while visiting friends in Montréal, and she is excited to communicate in French on future trips.

“I definitely find French helpful in my degree, in humanities in general,” she says. She cites using French sources that would have otherwise been unknown to her for her schoolwork. But there are other benefits, too, Link adds.

“Definitely you can list the practical advantages of speaking French,” she says, “but that’s not always the point. Through French immersion, I’ve been exposed to so many more movies and music that I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate. Honestly, English is a fine language for some things, but a lot of the time, people describe it as cold and impersonal. Sometimes I’ll be thinking of a word and I can only think of the French word because it’s a better, more expressive word.”

I, too, was in French Immersion while growing up in the Lower Mainland and speaking French has been extremely valuable throughout my life. My knowledge of French has also allowed me to learn Spanish, which has similar roots and structure.

My daughter is now in kindergarten at the Francophone school L’École Jack Cook in Terrace, and listening to her and her friends speak French in the playground fills me with pride and joy.

Cuts and Consequences

But some kids in northwest BC no longer have the option to study French – and there have been significant consequences as a result.

Until this year, Sk’aadgaa Naay Elementary, in Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, offered French Immersion from Grades 1 through 6. In June 2016, the local school board decided to not accept any new students, ultimately leading to the dissolution of the program. As a result, three doctors are closing their practices and leaving the islands. That cuts the number of doctors on Haida Gwaii in half.

One of those leaving, Dr. Andrea Willhelm, spoke about her decision in a CBC radio interview on February 2, 2017. “It’s a difficult choice but I have to do what’s right for my daughter,” she said.

Dawna Day, Superintendent for Haida Gwaii School District 50, said the school board did not make the decision lightly.

“There’s always multiple factors that go into cancelling any program. It’s a complex matter so complex pieces are looked at,” she says. “The goal of the board is to overturn all stones when we consider making a change to anything in the district.

“The motion that the board put forward was to continue with the same cohort of students as long as there were 12 students in that program,” Day continues. “We’ve guaranteed that it goes on next year. After that, it will be determined each spring when we look at numbers.”

The French Immersion program currently has 13 students enrolled. “It’ll probably end soon,” she says.

Scheduling conflicts and low enrolment, which increases program costs, were two issues that led to the board’s decision.

“There was really minimal interest for a new cohort,” says Day, adding that media reports covering the story were wrong when they stated that up to 25 students were interested in starting the program next year.

The district’s focus on the Haida language was another factor.

“The Haida Nation have declared that only English and Haida are the official languages of Haida Gwaii,” says Day. “We respect the knowledge and culture that comes with the territory.”

Teaching and learning indigenous languages is part of the truth and reconciliation of First Nations rights and culture. In recent years, many schools across northern BC have added local indigenous language to curriculum. In Prince Rupert, elementary students study the Tsimshian language, Sm’algyax. Haida Gwaii has SHIP, the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program, and all students in the district are taught some Haida.

French Immersion supporters believe French programs need not take away from Aboriginal language programs. Rather, they can complement each other.

Patrick Witwicki is the Executive Director of AFFNO (Association de Francophone et Francophile de Nord Ouest), an organization that supports and promotes French language and culture in northwest BC.

“If you can learn three languages, you are getting a much better education than anyone who is learning two or one,” he says. “All they did with that decision was create further division. There were definitely a lot of Haida families that were against the decision as well.”

The rural issue

Coast Mountain School District 82 is also considering changes to its French Immersion program. Currently, three of its communities—Hazelton, Terrace and Kitimat—offer French Immersion from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Similar to Haida Gwaii, the district is worried about low enrolment—specifically in higher grades—and associated costs. Scheduling conflicts, and the recruitment and retention of qualified teachers is also a challenge.

French Immersion numbers tend to drop when students transition from elementary to middle school, or middle to secondary school. There are lots of reasons for this. Students want to take electives other than French, or they want to be with their friends in English classes. Sometimes, they’re forced to choose a particular English course instead of a French one because the courses are offered simultaneously.

On March 29, Coast Mountain school board trustees came close to accepting a recommendation from district staff to only offer French Immersion up to Grade 9 in Kitimat, up to Grade 7 in Hazelton, but keep it through to Grade 12 in Terrace. The motion failed, but barely.

Art Erasmus of Terrace, the most insistent trustee calling for changes, is concerned about French Immersion taking money from other programs.

“We have four communities, one of which doesn’t offer regular programs because there isn’t enough money,” he said at the March 29 meeting, referring to limited course offerings in Stewart.

Board Chair Shar McCrory of Hazelton, imploring her colleagues to value French Immersion before the vote took place, said costs should not always trump opportunity. “If we were the voices of students in this case, the motion wouldn’t be going forward,” she said.

It’s understood that losing some kids in higher grades is inevitable. “The attrition level in BC is 12 percent,” says Witwicki. But attrition has a much bigger impact in northern BC.

“In rural areas, it’s a numbers game. The smaller the communities, the smaller the budget a school board has for education. This is definitely not a situation you would hear Prince George or Vancouver complain about, because they have the numbers,” he says.

While French Immersion supporters are relieved Coast Mountain School District has kept its program intact, they know it’s still vulnerable. They believe much can be done to strengthen the program and keep it viable.

Canadian Parents for French (CPF) is a national network with community chapters, dedicated to the promotion and creation of French second-language learning opportunities for young Canadians. Andrea Vickers of Hazelton CPF says all three groups in the district—Terrace, Kitimat and Hazelton—pulled out all the stops to keep the program going. “We have been working our butts off to try to turn this around,” she says. “All the parents are exhausted. Hours and hours of time and research and conference calls, putting things together.”

The three CPFs made a joint presentation to the school board in January that outlined strategies and recommendations to boost French Immersion throughout the district. Ideas included exit surveys to find out why kids leave the program, more student and staff supports, better communication with families enrolled in the program, and more opportunities for cultural exchanges and fun French experiences.

“We are a committed and organized group of parents who are willing to go above and beyond to keep French Immersion in our high schools,” says Vickers.

Anger and frustration

The Coast Mountain school board trustees put forward and accepted two other motions related to French Immersion at the March 29 meeting: research the possibility of offering videoconferencing courses; and work with regional groups including the CPF chapters in Hazelton, Kitimat and Terrace, AFFNO and other partner groups to seek more federal government funding.

Despite these action items, local CPF members are frustrated, disappointed and angry at what they see as the district’s lack of commitment. “So far all the solutions put forward have come from parents, not from district staff,” says Vickers.

CPF members have openly criticized the French Immersion Program Report submitted to the trustees by the district’s Superintendent and Secretary Treasurer for the March 29 meeting. They say the report ignored all of their recommendations.

Carolyn DeFreitas of CPF Terrace says the report was basically “a financial analysis of cost.” She questions why the district’s finance person was even involved in a report making program recommendations. “We have basically said, ‘You need to develop a retention strategy for this district’,” she says. “We’ve given them a million ideas. Our families and jobs have suffered because we’ve been trying to figure this out for months.

“The question should have never been, ‘How do we cost-effectively serve low numbers in the senior grades?’ but rather, ‘What needs to change in French Immersion so that we have a program kids want to stay in?’”

Flawed process

The district publicly announced the French Immersion program was under review just a couple of years ago. But according to Vickers and Susan Souryadouangphon of CPF Kitimat, they red-flagged the program six years ago.

In the last two years, the district formed two different committees to review the French Immersion program. Vickers was a parent representative on the first and Souryadouangphon on the second.

“In my opinion,” says Vickers, “the district stuck their head in the sand and waited until the program was on life support before officially letting stakeholders know we had a problem. The only conclusion I can come to is that they really don’t want to see the program succeed, or it’s not a program that deserves the time and effort to make it successful.

“Yes, we are dealing with enrolment and high attrition,” she admits, “but we haven’t been given a chance to turn that around.”

After serving on the second committee, Souryadouangphon says she felt jaded. “It was sort of up to us to bring whatever we could to the table.” But she says any idea she brought forward was “shot down” and deemed impossible or too expensive. “There was always something.”

The committee on which Souryadouangphon served was formed on September 28, 2016. It was supposed to meet over the next eight months, she says, yet the group met only three times and disbanded in December.

The committee’s Chair, Maxine Champion—the District’s French Immersion Coordinator and principal of Terrace’s French Immersion elementary school, École Mountainview—presented the committee’s final report at the January 2017 board meeting. Recommendations included minimum class sizes of 15 in Hazelton and 18 in Terrace and Kitimat, with a distance learning option if those minimums were not met. A CPF member later discovered that that the distance learning option was no longer available.

If the minimums were put in place, they’d be setting themselves up for failure, Souryadouangphon says.

French future?

Vickers believes much is at stake in her community of Hazelton, which suffers from high unemployment and, in recent years, youth suicide. “Our school is struggling as is and they are taking away something that could be very positive,” she says.

“The mere thought of having this program taken away from the students of the present and future is appalling,” Skeena Middle School French Immersion students wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Terrace Standard.

As for the future, DeFreitas says, “I feel like we have ‘X’ number of months to take a breath. We need to move into some serious action now. It’s going to take continued hard work by the chapters of CPF, and it’s going to take a team effort on behalf of volunteers, partner groups, and school district staff to now put into place the myriad of recommendations that have been put forward.”

Alors, qu’arrivera-t-il au français dans le nord-ouest de la Colombie-Britannique? Nous devrons attendre et voir.


Regarding your well written and researched article in May-June, entitled “Oui, je parle francais”:

The article contained several untrue statements by the SD50 Superintendent, Dawna Day.  Ms. Day was not on Haida Gwaii when the events surrounding the cancellation of this year’s French Immersion enrollment.

She says that the statements in the media of 25 students signing up for French Immersion were false.  This statement is untrue. There is a limit of 24 students in each cohort. One of my daughter’s friends was “first on the waiting list”.  In addition, there were at least another 4 who either committed to enrollment or were ‘considering’ enrollment. In a small community where parents often volunteer at the school and talk with each other, the board cannot get away with this kind of lie. (I stress that Ms. Day did not arrive until about 3 months after these enrollment lists were generated may have been only repeating this without fact-checking)
She states that there was very little interest. 

How about over 50 parents driving 140km on a weeknight in order to attend an ‘open’ meeting?  How about “hundreds of emails saying the same thing” (quote from an annoyed trustee who didn’t like receiving feedback.)

How about a petition initiated by one of the Haida parents demanding reinstatement of the French Immersion programme (which was DEMONSTRABLY ... and predictably… HELPING THE LEARNING OF THE HAIDA LANGUAGE) which received over 500 signatures in less than a month on islands with less than 5000 people and in affected communities of under 2000?

She stated that the board was complying with the Council of the Haida Nation’s policy that only Haida and English are official languages on Haida Gwaii, while the CHN stated publicly and to the Haida parents that “This is a misinterpretation of the intent of the policy”.  Another misleading statement. There are a couple of others regarding the current cohort but space is short.

The parents of the cancelled FI cohort, both Haida and non-Haida are passionate about the restoration of the Haida Language and are aware of the hugely positive impact of any immersion programme on learning a third language.  They offered to support a programme where, once there are fluent Haida speakers trained to teach the curriculum, ie Haida Immersion, we would enshrine the intent to shift from French Immersion with Haida to Haida Immersion with French. I personally would LOVE to see that, as would my daughter.  Instead, we are forced to move this summer to allow her to pursue good language education.  We hope to return in a year if the programme is restored. If not, I’ll be sad to say that I am leaving a land where I have lived longer than any other place on earth and where I had planned to be buried.

Peter Lake, MD
Skaagaa Suu,  K’aadaas Gaa K’iigawaay clan.