Mary Dougherty is hoping other francophone parents will join her in pushing for a French school in the Cowichan Valley. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

Francophone parents hoping to set up a French school in the Valley

Their children have a right to be educated in French, these parents say

There is a push in the Cowichan Valley to start a separate school, where students would be educated in a completely French atmosphere.

“We want a school for francophones, that is fully French, that would be run by the French school board as opposed to French immersion, which is run by the English school board,” said enthusiastic Mary Dougherty, a parent with a mission.

Unlike the local Cowichan Valley school board, the French school board is provincial, running all the schools in the province, she said.

“Victoria has several schools, of which the most famous is Victor Brodeur. Then there’s a French school in Nanaimo, in Port Alberni, Courtenay, Campbell River. We’re the only major community on the Island that doesn’t have a French school.”

She’s concerned because she feels there is insufficient access to French education in the Valley.

“The French Immersion system in the Cowichan Valley has historically served the needs of the francophone community. In 2017 the English school board, who run the French Immersion program, put in a lottery system which put upwards of 150 students on a wait list that year [numbers are unofficial, based on talking to parents]. Many of those excluded students were francophone, or of francophone descent and therefore have a right to a French education.”

Now, a group of parents are working with the French school board to open a French school in the Cowichan Valley.

“As we listen to our political leaders debate in both official languages this week, we are reminded of the importance of both languages,” Dougherty said.

Up until now, French speaking families or those who would like their kids to continue their education in French used a French immersion school.

She explained, “Those serve two purposes: they serve francophone families and those English speakers who wanted their kids to learn French. But suddenly because of this lottery system they brought in a few years ago, that’s changed. I would have been happy to camp out. But, I was put in the lottery system along with several other francophone families that I know and we didn’t get in. Now, I’m the only one speaking French to my child. I have an English speaking husband and we default to English a large proportion of the time. And because of that, and there’s English on the streets, the TV’s in English, my children are going to lose their French. It’s a real effort for one person to bring a whole culture and a whole vocabulary in. My children are great with ‘fork’, ‘plate’ but — I know they’re little now — but could they listen to the francophone debate the leaders are having currently? No! Could they apply for those jobs? No! Because they don’t have access to that French.

“There’s a bit of an issue here. Using a lottery takes away the choice from the families. The school didn’t want to budge on it. Even though they were putting in portables at the English schools because there was a big increase in population in 2015/16, and there was room in the French immersion schools.”

At the end of the day, there is no guaranteed access to French education in Cowichan for kids.

“That’s a federally protected right. Just as if you were to move to a francophone area, your child would be able to go to school in English. If you think about people moving for work, if they go for a three year contract and then move back afterwards, your children should be able to go to school. In Quebec, the English are the minority, and they fight very hard to keep their schools as well. A school is not just during the day, it’s where they make friends, it’s where they learn about culture. It’s also for families where we connect with other families, where we get support.”

What do they require to get their project off the ground?

“We need to prove to the French school board that we’re interested, that we have enough people now and coming. People who have a two-year-old or a one-year-old, we need them, too. We may also get kids from the French immersion system who want to come over into the French school.

“We’re trying to get that heritage to come back.”

If people want to express interest, they can contact the group by emailing ecolecowichan@gmail.com.

There is also a lot of information available at https://www.csf.bc.ca which takes you to the Conseil scholaire francophone de la Colombie-Britainique (CSF), she said.

The group has scheduled a get-together for interested families as well, on Sunday, Oct. 20 at Glenora Trailhead Park, starting at 1 p.m.

They are also planning monthly events after that.

The deadline is the end of 2019; by then they must have produced enough “solid numbers” to attract the support of the CSF and to get a school up and running by September 2020.

One thing about a francophone school as compared to a French immersion school is that it is easier to get teachers and especially teaching assistants for special needs kids as the staff does not have to be fluently bilingual as they must at French immersion institutions, Doherty said.

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