Northwest B.C. French language advocates protest student bus fee

Coast Mountains School District wants to charge students who take bus to schools outside of their neighbourhoods

“S’il vous plaît réexaminer?”

That’s the word from area French language advocates to the Coast Mountains School District (CMSD).

They’re asking the board to reconsider implementing a $20 per student, per month bus fee for students attending French immersion schools outside of their designated neighbourhood, warning that it will make French immersion an exclusive program only available to those who can afford it.

The district first attempted to implement the fee at the beginning of this school year, but backed down after backlash from parents prompted them to take the school year to listen to community feedback and re-introduce for the 2014/2015 school year.

In Terrace, the attempted fee affected students attending Ecole Mountainview on the bench.

“We are very concerned about the increased costs to send students to French immersion and we’re very concerned about the parents who are going to be considering French immersion,” said Monica Rigoni of Kitimat Parents for French during a presentation to the CMSD board at the regular monthly board meeting May 21, which also included representatives from Hazelton and Terrace.

Rigoni said the extra fee could deter families from considering the program.

“We’re concerned about the long term effects… we think it could lead to decreased numbers in French immersion, which is a real concern for us,” she said. “We do not want to make French immersion an exclusive program, we want it open to all parents and all families in our area.”

The per month charge is for students who attend schools outside of their catchment area, or schools of choice – for example, French immersion schools, or students who attend school in a different neighbourhood than their house.

“French immersion isn’t a choice, it’s a right,” said Patrick Witwicki, executive director of L’Association des Francophones et Francophiles du Nord-Ouest. “For every Canadian, regardless of background.”

The implementation of this fee draws a line between the “haves and the have nots” he said. “Twenty dollars is a big thing if you’re hoping to even get food on the table.”

The presentation stressed that the fee could damage French immersion class sizes and composition, and could, at worst, lead to the shutting down of certain French immersion programs in the northwest.

In Hazelton, students regularly cross catchment boundaries to attend John Field Elementary, not only for the French immersion program, but for classes in Gitxsan language and culture, explained Noreen O’Hara of Hazelton.

“We should not be asking families in an already economically depressed town like Hazelton, that has a really high unemployment rate and a geographically split down… we shouldn’t be asking them to pay for this,” she said.

And the group argued that there is a financial benefit to growing the French language program – the district is given a per student subsidy for full time French immersion students.

School board chair Art Erasmus said afterward that the board would need to look more closely at the financial benefit of full-time French immersion students, but that the presentations gave the board plenty to mull over.

“[What we’ve found is that] there are some other wrinkles we have to consider,” said Erasmus.

The board will discuss the presentations at upcoming business and education committee meetings before formally responding to the groups.