Several years ago, I talked about the early childhood situation in two blog posts (2009 and 2010). With the recent publication of the report entitled Early Childhood: Fostering the Vitality of Francophone Minority Communities, I thought it would be appropriate to reiterate the importance of the early years in our children’s education.
My federal counterpart, Mr. Fraser, points out in his report that there is no consensus on the impact that section 23 of the Charter has on provincial and territorial governments’ obligation to provide early childhood minority language programs. Despite this lack of consensus, there is clearly a very important connection between access to minority language education under section 23 and the delivery of early childhood services.
According to the report, French-language services provided to young children not only support acquisition of the language but also promote the development of a sense of belonging to the Francophone community. In profiling and describing the reality of young children in Francophone minority communities, Mr. Fraser pinpoints the issues that have a very direct bearing on this report: language transmission and exogamy, the involvement of two levels of government, and the lack of funding (which relates directly to the shortage of staff and training, insufficient infrastructure, and the lack of awareness among parents and service providers).
Mr. Fraser hopes that his report will influence the development of the next Roadmap for official languages by Canadian Heritage, since the current one is due to expire in 2018.
What does this mean for our Ontario government and for us Francophones and Francophiles in Ontario?
It is clear that early childhood programs funded by the provincial government play a crucial role in maintaining the identity connection to the French language among young children, particularly the children of exogamous couples.
It would therefore be a good idea for the provincial government, especially the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, to work on a policy framework that would map out and fund the delivery of French-language early childhood services in Ontario. Ideally, the two levels of government should engage in a dialogue and work together in response to Commissioner Fraser’s report to arrange suitable early childhood services that would be equivalent to the early childhood services provided in the majority language.
There have been many new initiatives in the last few years: Best Start Centres, the establishment of Early Years Centres, and the French-language school boards’ pilot projects for three-year-olds. Though useful, these measures have not helped develop stable, consistent delivery of French-language programs in all designated areas.
It is time Ontario put more emphasis on the early childhood component in negotiating the next Official Languages in Education Program (OLEP) agreement.
The province has the opportunity to be a leader for other provinces by improving early childhood services and ensuring a smoother transition to the French-language education system. It now needs to put its shoulder to the wheel and provide our young children with a top-quality educational environment – in French!
I therefore echo the call made by the Commissioner of Official Languages in his early October report for the federal government to provide sufficient funding for minority community early childhood initiatives in its next five-year plan for official languages.