Critics of changes coming to French education in New Brunswick say public consultations, beginning next week, could present an opportunity for government compromise.
“Parents want a choice,” says Chris Collins, executive director of Canadian Parents for French in New Brunswick.
“They want to be able to choose between French immersion or another program. They don’t want to be pigeonholed into French immersion, 50/50, or the intensive French program. They want choice.”
Starting in September, kindergarten to Grade 1 students will spend half their school day taught in French and the other half in English. The change will end the French immersion program in Grade 1 this fall, where students currently spend 90 per cent of their day taught in French.
Students starting kindergarten and Grade 1 this fall will continue under the 50/50 model throughout their primary school years.
A virtual question and answer session organized by the provincial government is scheduled for Monday night. An in-person consultation tour will run from Jan. 17 to Jan. 25 in Bathurst, Moncton, Saint John, and Fredericton. Virtual consultation sessions are scheduled for Jan. 31 and Feb. 2.
Chantal Bourbannis, executive director of the Canadian Association of Immersion Professionals, says the organization will participate in sessions and encourage parents to have a choice between programs.
“It would be a good compromise,” says Bourbannis. “I think that we need to give parents a choice. I think both programs can work together: Immersion and the new program they’re putting forward.”
Bourbannis says the association will also argue for any changes to wait until 2024.
“We need to take our time,” says Bourbannis.
Bill Hogan, minister of education and early childhood education, wasn’t made available for an interview Friday.
Hogan has previously snapped back at suggestions of reforms are being rushed.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Hogan on Dec. 15, 2022. “We’ve looked to experts, examined reports, and research that has been carried out over the last few decades.”
Department of Education staff had an initial plan to introduce French education changes in September 2024. Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters this past October it wasn’t his preference to usher in reforms in the lead-up to a provincial election, scheduled for Oct. 21, 2024.
“For some time, it has been presented as the end of September of 24,” said Higgs on Oct. 13, 2022, outside Government House, shortly after former Education Minister Dominic Cardy’s resignation from cabinet. “Well, we all know that in an election year, if you think you’re going to implement something significant, it’s not going to happen. It just won’t happen.”
Chris Collins was a cabinet minister in Shawn Graham’s Liberal government, which in 2008 created a universal French program for all Grade 5 students, with the choice of immersion starting in Grade 6. After a court-ordered public consultation process, Graham’s government made Grade 3 the immersion entry point.
In the fall of 2017, the Liberals under Premier Brian Gallant changed the French immersion entry point back to Grade 1. Collins was a Liberal MLA and House Speaker at that time.
Collins says it appears the provincial government has already made its decision about French education but says concerned parents should still speak up on the upcoming sessions.
“That’s how decisions are changed,” says Collins.
The provincial government is also accepting comments about the proposed changes through an online survey until Feb. 3.