Supreme Court win means improved facilities, transportation for French-language students

A ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada could improve bus routes for children attending French-language schools on the Sunshine Coast and change building plans for École du Pacifique in Sechelt.

“This is a victory for francophone parents who, ever since the creation of the CSF, have called for equivalent schools in a number of communities across the province in order to offer our youth a French-language education that is truly equivalent to the education provided in English-language schools,” said Suzana Straus, president of the parent group Fédération des parents, in a release following the June 12 decision.

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Conseil scolaire francophone (CSF), also known as School District No. 93 (SD93), and parents of children attending the French school district have been in litigation against B.C.’s Ministry of Education since 2010, seeking protection of their minority rights.

The case moved to the Supreme Court of Canada following a ruling made in 2016 by the B.C. Supreme Court, which the complainants argued contained errors that would erode those protections.

The B.C. court had concluded that to address the issue of chronic underfunding, communities were entitled to new French schools, but what educational opportunities those schools would offer compared with English schools would depend on enrolment. 

“The trial judge found that where SD93 had fewer kids, those kids were entitled to something lesser of a result by attending the French School and only where SD93 had essentially the same number of kids … as the average English school, only then did the those kids have a right to an equivalent result in the end,” said Mark Power, a lawyer representing SD93 and parents.

That meant children at smaller schools might not be entitled to the same amenities, such as gyms and science labs, as children at English schools with larger enrolment.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruling found in its 7-2 decision that under Section 23 of the Constitution, children of minority language speakers “must receive an educational experience that is substantively equivalent to the experience provided to the majority, regardless of the size of the school or program in question,” according to a release by CSF.

As a result, SD93 is entitled to a French-language elementary school facility in Sechelt that is equivalent to School District No. 46’s schools or other similarly sized English schools, not just something that is proportionate, given there are fewer children enrolled as CSF students on the Sunshine Coast, according to Power.

“There are a lot of people in the Sechelt area who have the right to send their kids to SD93 schools but don’t, and they don’t partly because the facility is not great, to put it nicely,” said Power. Those children also face “unreasonably long” bus transportation times, he said.

Improved transportation is also expected as a result of the ruling.

Because the province did not fix a longstanding discrepancy in bus service, the Supreme Court ruled that damages of approximately $7 million be awarded to SD93.

“Where Sechelt area parents find SD93’s school bus transportation to be slow, to be suboptimal, to be underfinanced, there is a reasonable prospect of seeing improvements” as early as September 2020, said Power, who also acknowledged COVID-19 may delay improvements.

This award is the largest of its kind in history, said Power. “It’s helpful for SD93 to know that government needs to respect the Constitution.”

In December 2019, SD93 had announced it would be building a new facility for École du Pacifique and that a site for the new facility would be announced in early 2020.

The new site has yet to be announced, as have any specific changes to the new school as a result of the ruling.

"The CSF is studying the impact of the June 12, 2020 decision rendered by the Supreme Court of Canada on its capital planning in Sechelt. The CSF will share details regarding its plans in Sechelt when they can be shared with the public,” said the CSF in a statement to Coast Reporter.

 

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