Susan Kootnekoff is the founder of Inspire Law, an Okanagan based-law practice, and provides Kelowna Capital News with weekly stories from the world of local, national and international law. (Contributed)

Kootnekoff: French Immersion expanding in Central Okanagan

Susan Kootnekoff is the founder of Inspire Law, her diverse legal career spans over 20 years

Previous articles in this column have discussed section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter).

Section 23 enshrines in our constitution the right of children of Canadian citizens to study French. Depending on the circumstances, this may be by attending a Francophone school or a French immersion program.

Section 23(1) generally protects the right of francophones to study in French language schools in primarily English-speaking provinces.

Section 23(2) states:

(2) Citizens of Canada of whom any child has received or is receiving primary or secondary school instruction in English or French in Canada, have the right to have all their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the same language.

Significantly, unlike most rights under the Charter, s. 23 imposes positive duties to act.

To date, court decisions have primarily focused on section 23(1). As a result of these cases, provincial education legislation now specifically provides for francophone schools.

But parents seeking access to francophone schools are not the only ones experiencing hurdles. Parents who wish for their children to study through French immersion programs also experience hurdles.

In a long string of cases over 30 years, beginning with Mahe v. Alberta, the Supreme Court of Canada has consistently upheld section 23 rights.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique v. British Columbia. Charter damages of $7 million was awarded against the province of B.C. for not adequately funding transportation to French language schools.

Other cases supportive of section 23 rights include Solski (Tutor of) v. Quebec (Attorney General), Nguyen v. Quebec (Education, Recreation and Sports), Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island, Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education) and Association des parents de l’école Rose‑des‑vents v. British Columbia (Education).

Cases such as these may be helpful to parents anywhere in Canada who wish to challenge lack of access to French immersion programs under section 23(2) of the Charter.

It is heartening to see Central Okanagan School District 23 (SD 23) abandon its decades-long position that French immersion is an inferior “program of choice.”

Previously, SD 23 had no French immersion catchments. Instead, students in the French immersion program were governed by English catchments.

This created various problems for parents and students seeking to access French immersion.

Finally, French immersion catchments have recently been created.

But, Kelowna Secondary School (KSS), the high school which offers French immersion, is currently overcrowded.

To address this overcrowding, SD 23 trustees seek to “enforce” the newly established Okanagan Mission Secondary (OKM) French immersion catchment.

This means that students leaving KLO middle school may be separated from their peers. Instead of proceeding to high school at KSS with their classmates, they may be forced to attend OKM, beginning in in 2022 – 2023.

Rather then adding portables to West side schools, West side students may displace those from the lower mission.

Parents and students are expressing concern that their children will be split from their classmates upon reaching Grade 10.

Parents are also expressing concern that SD 23 is prioritizing international students over local students.

At the very same January, 2021 meeting at which parents expressed concern, trustees capped the number of international students at KSS to 65 per year.

Trustee Geistlinger stated that more effort should be made to exhaust all possible options to reduce the student enrolment burden at KSS. She is right.

Disrupting the education of Canadian students, while allowing 65 international students to remain in place, may well be heading for trouble.

In Solski, the Supreme Court of Canada stated, in the context of s. 23(2), that children

are entitled to a continuous learning experience and should not be uprooted…. Uprooting would not be in the interest of …the child.

Studying French immersion ought not to be more disruptive to a child’s education than studying English. Moving the international students to OKM would free up spaces to alleviate having to uproot local students. It is not yet clear if SD23 is considering this.

Canadian citizens have a constitutional right to study French immersion and should not be uprooted.

International students have no such right.

An alleged lack of funds does not justify failing to prioritize section 23 rights.

Just last year, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, in Conseil, addressed this very issue:

The mission of a government is to manage a limited budget in order to address needs that are, for their part, unlimited. This is not a pressing and substantial objective that can justify an infringement of rights and freedoms.

Preserving the revenue generated from international students’ fees is not a valid reason to prioritize them over local students.

Parents can hope that Canadians will be permitted to complete their education with their peers. The school district has its work cut out for it to sort this out in a way that prioritizes the best interests of local students.

About Susan Kootnekoff:

Susan Kootnekoff is the founder of Inspire Law, an Okanagan based-law practice. Photo: Contributed

Susan Kootnekoff is the founder of Inspire Law, an Okanagan based-law practice. Photo: Contributed

Susan Kootnekoff is the founder of Inspire Law, an Okanagan based-law practice. She has been practicing law since 1994, with brief stints away to begin raising children.

Susan has experience in many areas of law, but is most drawn to areas in which she can make a positive difference in people’s lives, including employment law.

She has been a member of the Law Society of Alberta since 1994 and a member of the Law Society of British Columbia since 2015. Susan grew up in Saskatchewan. Her parents were both entrepreneurs, and her father was also a union leader who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of workers. Before moving to B.C., Susan practiced law in both Calgary and Fort McMurray, Alta.

Living and practicing law in Fort McMurray made a lasting impression on Susan. It was in this isolated and unique community that her interest in employment law, and Canada’s oil sands industry, took hold. In 2013,

Susan moved to the Okanagan with her family, where she currently resides.

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