Over 300 people packed into the Delta Fredericton ballroom on January 25 to discuss the proposed cancellation of New Brunswick’s French immersion program for September 2023.
The evening in Fredericton followed contentious gatherings held in recent days in Bathurst, Moncton, and Saint John by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
The event started off in a troublesome way. There was a clear display of bigotry from the back of the room when a solitary member of the public shouted at the moderator of the event to speak English. The person continued shouting over the speaker about the rights of “every child you force French upon” and called on the Minister to respect “constitutional rights.”
Later in the evening, in the same spirit of commenting, a mother asked if Francophone students in New Brunswick would also be forced to spend half of their school days in English.
However, despite these outliers, most participants were against the proposed change for other reasons and many remarked that the consultation was civilized, constructive and productive.
The event was attended by Minister of Education Bill Hogan, who has been in his position for less than four months after the spectacular exit of previous Minister Dominic Cardy. Hogan reassured the many teaching staff in attendance that there would be “no repercussions for being honest” during the event.
The Deputy Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development (Anglophone Sector), John McLaughlin, was also present. McLaughlin has also been in his position less than four months, after his predecessor’s firing. McLaughlin briefly introduced the proposed framework and tried to reassure the crowd: “we’ve heard that the decision is already made (…) That is not the case.”
Over the course of the almost 3.5 hour event, over 30 people from the public at the event spoke to the Minister, Deputy Minister and the larger crowd. Their comments reiterated those made during other consultation events, but also brought more clarity to the situation.
One of the most outspoken and popular speakers was educator Heather Hollett who received a standing ovation after her prolonged intervention.
Hollett had come prepared with a written text and, despite its length, held the crowd’s attention with her solid logic and strong wit. After reminding the government of the many problems in the existing system, she cautioned the government: “if you don’t have parents on board, this will not succeed.”
Many other educational staff of all levels were in attendance and spoke.
A Grade 2 teacher talked about her experience and stated: “with every change our ill-advised government makes, our lives become more difficult.” When encouraged to give a response, Minister Hogan answered: “the last thing I want to do is to make a change that will make things worse.”
Participants with varied disabilities were especially present in the room.
One participant called out the fact that children with Down’s Syndrome and other types of neurodivergence would be excluded from the proposed system. Two deaf participants who spoke through ASL interpreters also criticized their further exclusion with the proposed system.
To the Department of Education’s claim that this system would help resolve the so-called problem of “streaming” in programs, one participant declared: “fair and equal does not mean equitable.” Others reminded the government that streaming also exists in programs such as the International Baccalaureate, and there are no plans to remove them.
One middle school student with various disabilities attending the event with their mother courageously took to the microphone. They asked the administration to “please work on the quality of what we have before adding more.”
One participant even called out the representatives of the administration — “You’re not paying attention, Mr. Deputy Minister.”
Like Hollett, various participants emphasized the importance of proof in the form of solid research and data, repeatedly using the word “data.” They were indeed referencing the “data my ass” observation by Premier Blaine Higgs that former Education Minister Cardy had revealed in his resignation letter.
The people present had clearly done their homework.
One speaker had brought and shared extensive materials from other provinces as examples of how a second language can be imparted. Another had calculated that, with over 240 kindergarten classes in the province, the number of teachers in the province would be grossly insufficient for a fall 2023 start date to the proposed program.
Dr. Paula Kristmanson, the director of the Second Language Research Institute of Canada (L2RIC) at the University of New Brunswick, took to the mic to provide an expert opinion. She stated she had been moved to tears by some of the comments made.
Kristmanson also read the closing paragraph of the L2RIC open letter from November of 2022: “we are deeply troubled (…) Our concerns relate not only to the compressed timeline, which makes the development of any sound program practically impossible, but also to the potential elimination French immersion, which is the only FSL [French as a Second Language] program that has proven results with respect to FSL learning.”
Chris Collins, the Executive Director of Canadian Parents for French, a national network dedicated to the promotion and creation of French-second-language learning opportunities, also took to the mic at the end of the session. He asked everyone in the room to take the time to call their MLA and explain their concerns.
Speaking towards the end of the event, one father summed up the consultation as showing “strong opposition, or at least unanimous concern” with the proposed change. Like him, many other commenters pressed the government to be transparent about the consultation for this possible change.
With in-person forums now finished, further consultation sessions will be held online on January 31 and February 2. Click on the links to register.
Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.