The Supreme Court has ruled that Abbotsford needs a new French-language school and that Chilliwack’s currently doesn’t meet the needs of its students.Jessica Peters/Black Press

Supreme Court orders new French-language school for Abbotsford, improved one for Chilliwack

A French-only elementary school must be built in Abbotsford, court ordered in landmark ruling

This story originally stated that the ruling pertained to new French Immersion schools. In fact, the school run by Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique (CSF) is for the children of francophones, who have the right across Canada to have schooling provided for their children in French.

The provincial government will have to create a fully-French language school in Abbotsford and dramatically improve a sub-par French school in Chilliwack after a landmark Supreme Court ruling earlier this month. A Central Fraser Valley French secondary school will also need to be created at one of the elementary-school locations.

The decision comes after a decade of legal wrangling between the province and the school board in charge of French education in British Columbia – Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique (CSF). The CSF had filed a lawsuit alleging B.C. had breached the Charter of Rights and Freedom’s guarantees of minority-language education.

The Supreme Court ruled that the children of Francophones students in several places, including Abbotsford and Chilliwack, were deserving of homogenous (French-speaking-only) schools that were just as good as other local schools.

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READ THE COURT’S DECISION HERE

A similar previous ruling had been overturned by B.C.’s Court of Appeal, which led the Supreme Court to take up the case.

The Court of Appeal had ruled there weren’t yet enough students in Abbotsford, Burnaby, Vancouver and Victoria to require homogenous schools. But the Supreme Court disagreed, noting the long-term student projections must be considered, and that those forecasts show the communities need, and deserve, homogenous schools.

The court ruled by a 7-2 majority that the current lack of a French-language school in Abbotsford “prevents the CSF from providing a global educational experience that is substantively equivalent to the experience at nearby majority language elementary schools.”

The court ruled that Abbotsford students are entitled to a French-language elementary school with space for at least 85 students. That school must provide “that provides an educational experience that is substantively equivalent to the experience at nearby majority language schools.

Chilliwack’s school must also either be improved dramatically – or rebuilt at a different location. The court heard that the French-language school there, École La Vérendrye, is in a state of “disrepair” and had been starved of facilities common in other schools in the area. It has neither a library or its own gymnasium.

(Despite the presence of École La Vérendrye, many Chilliwack students are also enrolled in French immersion programs in mixed schools.)

The gymnasium rents space in a community hall, but getting students there is a complex process. That gym is also too small for basketball, so cold in winter that jackets are sometimes needed, and sometimes reeks like booze.

The court had heard that the hall also can’t be used at the beginning of a week “because they would then have to deal with disorderly premises and the smell of alcohol as a result of community activities held in it on the weekend.”

Books, meanwhile, are stored in a portable, which is also used to house sports equipment.

While the building is in a “state of disrepair,” the school provides “services of high quality in French,” with smaller class sizes than in other parts of the city, according to the Supreme Court judgement.

B.C.’s Court of Appeal had declared that the education provided at the school made up for the lackluster facility and declared the size of the gymnasium and library to actually be bigger than some comparable schools. The Supreme Court ruled that reasoning was flawed.

“The effect of the application of this proportionality‑based approach is to turn a gymnasium where most sports cannot be played and a library set up in a cramped portable classroom into facilities that are considered to be of sufficient quality,” Supreme Court Justice Richard Wagner declared, writing for the majority.

“A balancing of the advantages and disadvantages of the French‑language school in Chilliwack shows that the quality of the educational experience provided there is meaningfully inferior to that of the experience at the majority’s schools. A reasonable parent, even one who is aware of the inherent characteristics of small schools, would likely be deterred from enrolling his or her child at this school.”

Chilliwack, the court ruled, needs an elementary school with space for at least 60 students in a facility much better than that currently available.

The CSF had also called for better French-language schools in Mission. But the Supreme Court declared that the same mistakes that allowed it to overturn the B.C. Court of Appeals ruling were largely absent in regards to Mission.

The Court of Appeal had declared that the CSF hasn’t provided enough evidence for a judge to assess the situation at the Mission school. The Supreme Court maintained that the position, while declaring the situation in Mission “concerning,” particularly in regards to that school’s undersized gym.

Its ruling on the Mission situation was simple: “Children of rights holders in the Mission area are entitled to an educational experience that is substantively equivalent to the experience at nearby majority language schools.”

Two justices dissented from parts of the ruling – but maintained that Chilliwack’s school was “substantially inferior” to others in the area, and the Abbotsford French-language students were entitled to a homogenous school.

The provincial ministry of education released a statement saying:

“We respect the direction and guidance of the Supreme Court of Canada on minority language education rights. The decision is lengthy and complex. We are taking the time to carefully review the decision, to ensure that we understand the Court’s guidance and to consider next steps.

“For the past several years, the Ministry and CSF have been mostly focused on communities identified in the 2016 trial judgment, such as Vancouver, Sea to Sky, Penticton, Sechelt, Victoria and Abbotsford. In light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision, we look forward to the CSF’s guidance on how it will prioritize capital plan requests for rightsholders.”

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