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The laws governing Francophone Education in Alberta

What are the ordinances and the laws that mark the development of Francophone Education over the years and how are they linked to the laws that have to do with the status and the use of the French language in the North-West Territories and in the Province of Alberta?

The status of the French language

French is the first European language spoken in Alberta and in 1875 its use is widespread since French-speaking Roman Catholics constitute the majority of the white inhabitants of the Territories at the time. In spite of this fact no provision for official bilingualism is made in the North-West Territories Act of 1875. The Act does however include a provision for confessional schools for the minority of any school district, whether they are Protestant or Roman Catholic. It is important to remember that this provision is not unrelated to the question of language since French at the time is the predominant language of instruction in the Catholic schools of the Territories. In 1877, the North-West Territories Act is amended so that Section 11 now provides that both English and French can be used in the debates of the Council, in the court proceedings as well as in the Council’s records and journals, and in the printing of its ordinances. Section 11 will later become Section 110 in the 1886 version of the North-West Territories Act.

Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, opponents of the French fact are proposing legislation to abolish the use of the French language in the North-West Territories and after a long and bitter debate a compromise is reached in 1891. The 1891 amendment states that after the next general election, the Territories’ legislative assembly can, by ordinance or otherwise, regulate its proceedings and the manner of recording and publishing them. A year later, in 1892, the Assembly will adopt the Haultain resolution which states “that it is desirable that the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly shall be recorded and published hereafter in the English Language only”. Over the next few years, the use of French in the Legislative Assembly will gradually disappear.

The 1905 Alberta Act makes no direct mention of language rights but it provides for the continuation of the pre-existing laws insofar as they are consistent with the Act. Although both Alberta and Saskatchewan will continue to be bilingual in theory this fact will only be brought to light in 1988 following the Supreme Court ruling in the Mercure case. A few months later, both provinces will quickly adopt new laws officially establishing their unilingual status.

Francophone education in Alberta

Under the terms of the North-West Territories Act of 1875 the majority of any district can establish such schools as they see fit. On the other hand, the minority of rate-payers of any district, whether they are Protestant or Roman Catholic can establish separate schools and be liable to support only these schools. As indicated earlier, this fact is not unrelated to Francophone education since most Francophones are Roman Catholic and it is generally believed that French was used as a language of instruction in the separate schools of Alberta.

A further ordinance concerning schools was passed in August 1884 establishing a Board of Education composed of two sections, one Protestant and one Catholic, with each in charge of the conduct of its own schools. The 1884 ordinance also restricted religious instruction to the last hour of the afternoon.

In 1892, School Ordinance No. 22 is introduced following the adoption of the Haultain resolution. Section 83 of the new ordinance requires that all mandatory subjects of the program of study be taught in English. This ordinance is modified in 1896 and again in 1901 permitting the teaching of a French primary course. More specifically, the 1901 provision states that all schools are to be taught in the English language, but that it is permissible for the board of any district to cause a primary course to be taught in the French language. The 1901 modification also states that the board of any district can offer instruction in any language other than English in the schools of the district to all pupils whose parents have signified a willingness for such instruction. All costs of such a course of instruction should be collected by the board by a special rate to be imposed upon the parents concerned.

In 1925, the Franco-Albertan community’s protests concerning the need for Government to establish clearer provisions concerning the teaching of a pimary course in French are met with success. The newly established regulations that will come into effect on September 1st 1925 specify that in all schools in which the Board, by resolution, decides to offer a primary course in French, in accordance with Sect. 184 of the School Ordinance, French shall be for the French-speaking children one of the authorized subjects of study and may be used as a medium of instruction for other subjects during the first school year. Oral English must, however, be included in the curriculum as a subject of study from the beginning.

During the second year and after the child has learned to read in the mother tongue, the formal teaching of reading in English shall be begun.

From Grade III on, a period not exceeding one hour each day may be allotted to the teaching of French. The regulations also specify that the term “French” includes reading, language study, grammar, analysis, dictation and composition. According to the 1925 regulations teachers may also offer explanations in the mother tongue when necessary. Private schools such as Collège Saint-Jean, founded in 1908, the Collège des Jesuites established in 1913 and l’Académie Assomption established in 1926 are also considered to be exceptions to the rule.

This state of affairs will last until 1968 when the School Act is amended to allow the use of French as a language of instruction for up to 50% of the daily school time. A subsequent Regulation introduced in 1976 will extend the limit on French-language instruction up to 80% of the school day.

Although French can now be used as the language of instruction for most of the school day, Francophones still do not have access to homogeneous Francophone Education since the province of Alberta has decided to open French-language programs to all language groups. According to the Minister of Education, many boards must rely on large numbers of students whose mother-tongue is other than French in order to establish classes where French is used as the language of instruction. Homogeneous Francophone education will only be made available to the Franco-Albertans after the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom in 1982. Article 23 of the Charter includes the right to instruction in the language of the minority and the right to have Franco-Albertan children receive that instruction in minority language educational facilities provided out of public funds and managed and controlled by members of the linguistic minority population. These rights will be confirmed by the March 1990 Supreme Court decision in the Mahé/Bugnet case.

On January 11 1991, Minister of Education Jim Dinning establishes the French Language Working Group whose main purpaose is to make recommendations for legislation which should be adopted regarding the management and control of Francophone schools and programs in Alberta.

The group will submit a unanimous final report in May of 1991. The report recommends that the School Act be amended to allow the Minister of Education to establish Authorities and Coordinating Councils for the governance of Francophone education.

The Alberta School Amendment Act of 1993 will include all of the provisions needed to ensure the implementation of the Section 23 Charter rights of French-speaking parents in regards to minority language instruction and governance. In March 1994, for the first time in its history, the Franco-Albertan community will elect Franco-Albertan trustees for the Edmonton/Legal, the Rivière-la-Paix and the Saint Paul/Plamondon/Medly regions. This will prove to be a truly historical moment for the French-speaking community which has had to wait 101 years to regain the rights lost in 1892.

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