I spent my first eight years of school in a French immersion program in midtown Toronto. I nonetheless realized, during a grade seven exchange with a school in rural Quebec, that I could understand Parisian French films quite well, while still having little ability to converse with fellow Canadians from around Lac St. Jean. The local accents and vocabulary were confounding. It is, therefore, very clear to me that language education is not just a matter of having people read and write in a particular tongue, but also a matter of them picking up culture and context.
In terms of constitutionally protected minority language education rights, our courts have made it clear in cases about French education that it’s not just a community’s linguistic character that is to be protected by s. 23 of the Charter, but also its culture. In practice, that has meant that a local French school had to be provided for francophone kids in Summerside, P.E.I., rather than having them bused an hour away to an existing French school in another part of the province.
Yet when I see this same Supreme Court case — Arsenault-Cameron v. P.E.I. — being used to justify maintaining separate French and English school busing systems in New Brunswick, I become skeptical. The Arsenault-Cameron decision specifically notes that school buses are not “educational facilities” — the phrase used in the s. 23 guarantee. And in Arsenault-Cameron, the court highlighted that P.E.I.’s then education minister had said financial issues were not a consideration in the decision to bus the Francophone children, rather than create a school for them locally.
In New Brunswick, we have seen that serious financial struggles are exactly what brought the busing issue to the fore in the first place. We had concerned politicians and residents noting, quite reasonably, that there was something troubling about paying for duplicative school buses at the same time as talking about closing schools and laying off teachers to cut costs. Maintaining the linguistic purity of a school vehicle starts to look pretty ridiculous if it takes shuttering entire schools, French or Anglo, to help pay for it.
Separate busing is mandated by the Constitution, New Brunswick’s government insists. And it’s gone to the New Brunswick Court of Appeal with a reference case for confirmation. If anyone’s going to get stuck with this hot potato, let it be the courts rather than me, New Brunswick education minister Serge Rousselle seems to be thinking. We could then see an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada if the Court of Appeal comes back with an answer that any of the parties to the reference disputes. Then – and this is the key point – the highest court in the land would weigh in on if minority language education rights can be taken so far as to mandate linguistically segregated busing.
It was one thing when the Supreme Court insisted creating a French school in Summerside was constitutionally necessary so that Francophone students there could be educated in the heart of the Acadian community. It would be way beyond that for the Supreme Court to insist that “French” buses are constitutionally necessary for Francophone students in New Brunswick to maintain their French language and culture, creating a peculiar entitlement to commuting and traveling only with those who share a first language with them.
What if the Francophones on the French buses spontaneously burst into English conversation, or played an English tune on an iPhone? Would they be disturbing a constitutionally protected scheme?
Alas, it’s hard to see how a dual busing requirement could prove legally durable, and it’s perhaps just as importantly hard to see how a dual busing requirement will help New Brunswick students become integrated and cohesive members of a bilingual province. Sometimes past wrongs can be remedied through positive guarantees, but it’s hard to imagine how they can be remedied through culturally divisive requirements that defy common sense.
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