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French parents win court order

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (July 15/05) - A Supreme Court justice has ordered the territorial government to take drastic steps to improve conditions for French students in Yellowknife.

Justice Vital Ouellette sided with several francophone parents Tuesday who claimed school facilities for their children were inadequate."We are very happy with the decision," said Yvonne Careen, president of the Parents Rightholders Association - a group that represents about 90 students and their families.

They claim the territorial government has failed its obligation to provide a proper French-language eduction. That lawsuit is still before the court.

The only francophone school in Yellowknife, ecole Allain St-Cyr, lacks a gymnasium, art and music rooms, science labs and student lounges.

In his decision, Ouellette said students who cannot receive instruction in their mother-tongue suffer "irreparable prejudice."

"This risk is assimilation and (it threatens) the viability of the minority community," he wrote.

Ouellette ordered the government to take several steps to alleviate problems at the school, including:

  • use of a gymnasium during and outside school hours;
  • access to science labs and art rooms;
  • two portable classrooms to be installed at Allain St-Cyr;
  • a bus to transport students to and from the gym, science labs and art rooms.

"It is clear the plaintiffs will suffer severe prejudice if this temporary injunction is refused," Ouellette wrote. He gave the government a deadline of Sept. 1 to make the changes.

Education Minister Charles Dent said his department will have no problem meeting most of those provisions save for the ruling on portable classrooms.

"The Department of Public Works has been unable to locate any in the Edmonton area so we are expanding the search," he said. Dent said it was to early to estimate how much the classrooms would cost.

He said the department is close to reaching an agreement that would allow French students to use science and art facilities at neighbouring William McDonald school.

The government also used taxis to shuttle students to the nearby Yellowknife Multiplex for gym class.

"We have been working closely with the (French school board) to address their issues," Dent said.

Andre Legare, chairperson of the francophone school board, called the court decision a "victory."

"The winners here are the children who attend Allain St-Cyr," he said. "They will be able to continue their studies with facilities that are at least equal to those of other students."

But the court order represents only a temporary solution, Legare said. The francophone community would like the government build another French school or expand Allain St-Cyr, which was completed in 2000 at price tag of $3.9 million.

The lack of permanent, on-site science labs and art rooms drives students away from Allain St-Cyr once they reach high school, Legare said.

Enrolment has dipped more than 20 per cent since 2001-2002 and the school has just five students above Grade 8.

In court documents, the government said it could not justify spending millions of dollars on a new school with enrolment at Allain St-Cyr dwindling.

Heritage Canada program

Legare said the federal government would cover most of the costs through a Heritage Canada program. Ottawa paid about 80 per cent of the Allain St-Cyr price tag, he said.

"This would not take away funds from (Yellowknife District No. 1) or Yellowknife Catholic Schools," Legare said.

"If we were not around, the territorial government would not get this money."

Dent said however, all federal funding is negotiable and Ottawa would not necessarily cover the complete cost of renovations or a new school.

Dent said his preference would be to settle the case outside of court and the department would continue to work on a proposal to Heritage Canada for an extension to Allain St-Cyr.

"I would rather spend money educating kids than on lawyers," he said.