Some Canadians Seek Their Right to French Schools ; Small Rural Francophone Communities Are Seeking Funding for French Schools

Article excerpt

Everybody knows that parental involvement in community schools is a good thing.

But the parents of the cole Communautaire Gilbert-Rosset have taken involvement to another level: They built the school with their own funds, and staffed it with teachers, who initially taught for free.

"It was pretty scary at first," says Maurice Hince, a sort of latter-day prairie pioneer. "People said we were a bunch of crazy people, that we wouldn't last six months."

But they had a goal: to exercise their constitutional right to have their children educated in French. Now in their third year, with 24 pupils from 12 families, they appear to have succeeded.

The Gilbert Rosset parents have also sued to have the province recognize their school as an official part of Manitoba's French School Division and fund it properly.

They are hopeful that a January ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, ordering Prince Edward Island to build a French school for its Francophone community of Summerside, despite their small numbers, will be heeded in Manitoba.

In both Summerside and St. Claude, the parents are setting a new benchmark under the constitutional right for children to be educated in their own language in their communities "where numbers warrant."

The two communities are effectively defining how many students are needed before the provinces must fund a French school. Both cases are being closely watched by Francophone communities and local officials across Canada.

Despite the high court ruling, at the moment, provincial officials in Manitoba and PEI have not yet provided full funding, says Annette Labelle, president of the Commission Nationale des Parents Francophones, from her office in Regina, Saskatchewan.

St. Claude is a farming village an hour and half southwest of Winnipeg, founded a century ago by immigrants from France. Today a majority of its 600-plus inhabitants are "Charter right" Francophones, entitled to education in French. But the community is "very assimilated," says Hince. It's a pattern widely seen across Canada as little communities of French-speakers have been overwhelmed by the rising tide of English.

In 1982, however, Canada adopted its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with its guarantee of linguistic-minority education rights "where numbers warrant." This has led to the establishment of many new French-language school districts. These "will not counteract the assimilation [but] will slow it down," says Ms. Labelle.

Manitoba's French School Division, established in 1993, now has 4,100 students, out of a potential 10,000 school-age Francophones in the province.

After the division was launched, a proposal to establish a French school in St. Claude was presented for a vote. It was defeated - because of scare tactics, Hince says, by opponents who claim that a French school would crowd out English-language options. …