Sunday, March 23, 2008

French Immersion in New Brunswick: Lessons from the Past

I don't often post directly about my own research and publications, but recent events in New Brunswick, coupled with an upcoming book release, seem to make this post appropriate.

Currently, Kelly Lamrock, New Brunswick's education minister, is in the process of attempting to eliminate core French and French immersion for grades 1-4. It is deeply upsetting to see the province that once championed bilingualism now acting in such a strange fashion, contrary to the wishes of parents, and against the advice of education experts.

It wasn't always this way in the province. In the next week or so, Fernwood Publishing will be releasing a collection of essays co-edited by Marie Hammond-Callaghan and myself about social movements in Canada. My own contribution to the collection is an article entitled "Mad at Hatfield's Tea Party: Federalism and the Fight for French Immersion in Sackville, New Brunswick, 1973-1982". While I was teaching at Mount Allison University, I had occasion to conduct some research into the history of French immersion in New Brunswick. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, parents in New Brunswick were actively trying to expand the French immersion program, generally with the support of Richard Hatfield's government.

The program grew in popularity to the point where demand far outstripped class space. Indeed by 1980, the number of applicants for grade one immersion in Sackville, New Brunswick was twice that of the number of available spaces in the single class. Faced with the prospect of two dozen children not being allowed entrance into the program, parents in the community launched a three-pronged lobby effort aimed at the school board, the provincial government, and the federal government in order to expand the French immersion program. Ultimately, the Hatfield government decided to revise its education program to mandate the creation of French immersion classes where sufficient demand existed.

Unfortunately, back in the early 1980s, it was the local school boards that were reluctant to expand immersion program offerings, while the federal government was wholeheartedly in favour of promoting official languages, and the provincial government was generally sympathetic. Parents are facing an uphill battle in the current climate, as it is the provincial government which has financial control and curriculum-setting powers, and yet seems unwilling to listen to the advice of pedagogical experts, or even the parents who support this form of education for their children. I understand that parents and advocacy groups intend to fight this decision, and I hope that they are ultimately successful in reversing this ill-advised policy.

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