A 10-year battle to get a francophone school in Burnaby – including a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada – is one step closer to being won after a $24-million deal between the province’s French-language school board and the Burnaby school district.
For years, local francophone parents who don’t want their children to lose their mother tongue have had to ship them to schools in Vancouver or Port Coquitlam.
“It’s very far for the kids. It can take up to one hour for some children to go to school, one hour each way,” said Marie-Andrée Asselin, executive director of Fédération des parents francophones de Colombie-Britannique (the province’s francophone parents federation).
The situation forces some parents to choose between preserving their kids’ right to a French-language education and enrolling them in their neighbourhood school, so they can be closer to friends they make at school, according to Patrick Gatien, chair of Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique (the province’s French language school board).
“It may seem like a minor thing, but at that age it’s very important,” he said.
For more than a decade, CSF’s capital plan submissions to the provincial government included requests for a Burnaby school, Gatien told the NOW.
“We knew that there was a big demand in Burnaby because we can certainly see that the schools that Burnaby is feeding into right now are overpopulated,” he said, “and we knew that it was a key centre for us or a key area for us to have a presence.”
The Constitution guarantees francophone children the right to publicly funded primary and secondary French-language education in B.C. (and other provinces where French is the minority language) – where numbers warrant.
There’s no doubt in Gatien’s mind that Burnaby fit that criteria, but it took a lawsuit to force the province and Ministry of Education to own up to that obligation in Burnaby and other communities around B.C.
In 2010, CSF, the francophone parents federation, and three parents launched a lawsuit claiming the province had infringed on their rights under section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by systematically underfunding French-language schools.
The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which in June 2020 ruled the province and Ministry of Education had infringed on B.C. parents’ rights, and declared they were entitled to several more schools, including one in Burnaby.
A little over a year later, in August 2021, CSF’s capital funding request for a school in Burnaby finally got the go-ahead.
By the end of the year, the French-language school board had purchased the old Duthie-Union Elementary School at 7231 Frances St. from the Burnaby school district for $24 million.
“Unfortunately francophone parents have to always fight for a new school. It seems to be the case here in B.C. but other in other provinces as well,” Asselin said.
The Duthie-Union property has housed the Puddle Splashers Childcare Society daycare for years, and the school district is currently leasing the school back from the CSF so Puddle Splashers can continue to operate in the space until it moves into facilities in the new Burnaby North Secondary School, which is currently under construction.
CSF told the NOW it’s still too early to tell when the French-language school might open, whether the current building will meet its needs or whether a new school will have to be built on the property.
Much of that will be determined after upcoming assessments of the facility, a spokesperson said.
The Ministry of Education put out a press release earlier this week about the funding it provided for the Duthie-Union deal.
“It is so important that families who speak French as a first language have the opportunity to send their children to a francophone school that's close to home,” Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said in the release. “I'm pleased to see the site is secured in a convenient, permanent location for Burnaby francophone children and families.”
Since September 2017, the province has provided CSF with $53.84 million for site purchases in Penticton, Kamloops, Victoria and Burnaby, according to the release.
“This investment is part of government’s work to ensure francophone students have certainty in their education by funding school site purchases that give families confidence that a permanent French school will be operating in their community under the ownership of the CSF,” states the release.
There was no mention of the lawsuit.