News: Education, Children and Youth

French Immersion: C’est what?

The advantages of bilingualism have been demonstrated in countless studies, several of them indicating that exposure to more than one language can have positive social and cognitive effects on children. In Ontario and throughout Canada, enrolment in French immersion classes keeps growing in popularity. In 2016, the French immersion program celebrates its 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion, I have “borrowed” an op-ed article written by Mary Cruden, president of Canadian Parents for French (Ontario), which in my view demystifies what is French immersion exactly and the benefits it provides. Ms. Cruden has kindly accepted to be our guest blogger and to let us reproduce her text. For that, I wish to thank her sincerely.


French Immersion: C’est what?

Imagine a school program so popular that parents are willing to line up overnight just to secure a spot for their child. A program whose appeal cuts across income groups, mother tongues and just about every other demographic measurement. A program as emblematic of our country as our flag or our vaunted universal health care system.

Now imagine that the response to this growing demand is:  “Hey! This program is too popular – we better cut it back!”

Bizarre as that response seems, that’s exactly the threat to French immersion programs in a number of communities in Ontario.  Even worse, advocates of these cutbacks use spurious arguments and the omission of vital information – as we saw in the Globe and Mail a few days ago – to try to dampen parent support for immersion.

“French immersion is an ‘elite program’ that appeals only to the wealthiest families?”  In fact, data from the Toronto District School Board – the country’s largest – shows that uptake in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods is growing just as it is elsewhere in the city.

“French immersion is too hard, and kids need to focus on the subjects that ‘really matter’?”  Well, the province’s standardized testing shows that by grade 6, French immersion students aren’t just becoming proficient in French – they’re actually at par or surpassing their peers in math and – get this – reading and writing in English!

“Immigrant kids in our schools should focus on learning English – adding French is too tough?”  Actually, the language skills these kids already have give them a leg up with French.  What’s more, there’s something particularly paternalistic about this one; as if these kids should be relegated to a second class and not given the opportunities that native-born Canadians have. People who believe this should meet the Sri Lanka-born father I did who spoke passionately in halting English of how he wanted his child to learn French, so that he might grow up one day to become Prime Minister of Canada.

Finally, there’s the perennial “Why bother learning French at all – kids should be learning Mandarin or Spanish, or some other language that will have commercial value?”  Put aside for a moment what that says about the questioner’s sense of his or her own country.  Or the fact that Mandarin and Spanish immersion are not offered in Ontario schools.  Or that French immersion doesn’t compete with or interfere with after-school language programs. All you need to know is that French immersion is an excellent gateway for young people to learn other languages

We like to think that as a country and province we’ve come a long way.  And in many ways we have. But, to paraphrase our flawlessly bilingual prime minister, a trained French immersion teacher himself, “It’s 2016”.  And in the very year that our province’s premier apologized to Franco- Ontarians for the notorious Regulation 17 which severely curtailed French education a century ago, we really should be wondering why accessing quality French as a second language education for English kids is still a fight and not a right. Parents often respond with shock when they learn that the French immersion program is capped or that transportation is not provided or that this key educational decision is going to be made by lottery. They immediately say ‘But, Canada is a bilingual country. Don’t my children have a right to fully participate by becoming fluent in French?’

Well, so much depends on where you live. According to the Ontario Education Act, English school boards have the discretion to establish French programs for their students and that discretion is exercised differently across the province. It is very dependent on political will rather than sound, research-based pedagogy and equity. If you live in Ottawa and your child is starting Junior Kindergarten this fall, he or she, along with all of their age group will be going into French immersion. If you live in Peel and your child is starting grade 1, you will be in the lottery and could be turned away like 400 others in the last two years. If you live in Halton, there is great uncertainty as the board is exploring getting rid of early French immersion altogether and instituting a cap, like Peel. In Upper Grand, the board is considering watering down the immersion program and instituting a cap, also like Peel. Meanwhile, if you live in Sudbury or Toronto, you have a great immersion program – all French in the early years, no limits on who attends and a strong commitment to supporting all learners in the program.

Imagine if your child’s ability to learn Science depended on which school district you lived in. Imagine if your schoolboard said “We’re going to limit access to Math classes because the parents aren’t choosing it for the right reasons.”  Imagine if they said “We don’t need to teach kids subjects that let them get to know their country, like Canadian History or Geography.”

Every child should get a great education. If a parent wants that education to include a top-notch, full- on French immersion program, it should be provided. If a parent wants a basic French program, then that child should get a great education too. Education should never be reduced to a zero sum game where parents compete for resources or school real estate. The growing demand for a program that produces graduates who are comfortable and confident in both of Canada’s Official Languages is a wonderful, positive step forward not something to curtail.

Our schools are building the citizens – and the Canada – of the future. Parents know this – that’s why they’re choosing French immersion in ever increasing numbers.  Instead of the current patchwork of opportunity for kids to become bilingual in Ontario, let’s get our school boards, the province and the feds working together to embrace this challenge, to make French immersion accessible to all and to have the best possible achievement in French for all of our children.


Mary Cruden
President, Canadian Parents for French Ontario
2015 Recipient Ontario Prix de la Francophonie

A Franco-Ontarian Morning at Trent University

This blog post is brought to you by our guest blogger Alison Stewart, who is one of our three Project Managers as well as responsible for community liaison. This is her summary of the Franco-Ontarian Morning which took place on February 11th at Trent University.


As an alumni of the Trent Studies program of Trent University, it was a pleasure to visit my alma mater and speak about, well, speaking French in Ontario. In my function as Community Liaison, I largely speak to Francophones about their language rights and the need to actively ask for their services in French from the Ontario government, even if there is no indication that those services are available. As a proud Francophile, a product of the French-immersion program in Guelph, Ontario, I am pleasantly surprised with the reach French has in our province (as it should). Neither Guelph nor Peterborough is situated within designated regions, and Trent University is an Anglophone institution – yet it is largely within these confines that I learned French.

When I was a Trent student, the literary studies were either French-centric or Québec-centric. There was no mention of Franco-Ontarian writers, or indeed any mention that Ontario has the largest Francophone community in Canada outside of Québec. It is with this backdrop that I was pleased to participate in Trent’s second Franco-Ontarian Morning. The day was kicked off by Johanne Melançon, an associate professor at Laurentian University and adjunct researcher for the Research Chair on the Literatures and Cultures of Francophone Canada. Her research and publications have garnered awards. Johanne gave an interesting talk on the past thirty-five years of Franco-Ontarian literature. I came away with a list of books to read, starting with François Paré’s La distance habitée.

Following Johanne’s lecture came Didier Leclair, an award winning novelist, who spoke of his new book Pour l’amour de Dimitri and then read a passage from his popular book Toronto, je t’aime. When he described the colourful Queen Street West, I was struck by the fact that the Francophone population in Toronto has exploded since his book was published in 2001.

So, what about speaking French in Ontario? For anyone juggling more than one language, there is an appreciation of the frustrations (and joys) that often accompany being multi-lingual. While Francophones are faced with the difficulties associated with living as a linguistic minority, Francophiles are faced with similar challenges, albeit on a different scale. Maintaining one’s languages is virtually impossible if one isn’t using it. One of the main objectives of my presentation was to do just that – encourage the mostly Francophile students of the Trent Studies Program to continue working on their French, especially as they graduate and set forth into their careers. In addition to providing them with a brief historical context of Ontario’s Francophonie, existing language laws in Canada (focusing on Ontario), the active offer and some fun tips and tricks to keeping one’s French up to date in an English speaking province.

Congratulations to Sylvie Bérard, the Chair of Modern Languages and Literatures at Trent University and my university professor Yves Thomas for organising such an engaging and successful Franco-Ontarian day!

Protocol for Dealing with Complaints with Laurentian University

I am pleased to announce the signing of a protocol for dealing with complaints under the French Language Services Act (FLSA) between my office and Laurentian University. As you know, since 1 July 2014, Laurentian University is designated under the FLSA. Thus, this establishment has the obligation to ensure accessibility and provide certain designated French-language programs and services that meet the standards of the Public Service of Ontario. The partial designation of Laurentian University focuses on French-language services at the Sudbury campus and the provision of programs in French leading to 13 degrees at the bachelor, master and doctoral levels.

With this protocol, the University is committed in particular to make its designation known to the public as well as the services they are entitled to and also to publicize its obligations relating to its designation, as well as the process for dealing with complaints.

Even if the Commissioner’s Office may receive complaints, it is important to note that the protocol provides that all complaints must first be addressed to the Office of the Associate Vice-President of Research and Francophone Affairs at the University in order to report a deficiency in French-language services. However, complainants may report a deficiency at any time or in case of dissatisfaction with the response received from the University. You may read the Protocol here under the tab Partial Designation.

This Protocol has been in effect since Laurentian University’s designation. The highlights had been agreed to between the University and my office in 2012. This reflects a proactive and collaborative approach which in my opinion is a model for the rest of the province.

Collège Boréal’s 20th Anniversary

I’d like to congratulate Collège Boréal, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The Collège is a major player in the Franco-Ontarian community and was the very first postsecondary institution to receive full designation under the French Language Services Act. The Collège showed a great deal of initiative and drive in requesting this legal and political protection from the government; it ensures that all of the institution’s programs and services will be available in French.

As a prominent player in the education sector, the Collège has put a lot of effort into effectively serving the Francophone community. Since its establishment in 1995, it has extended its educational activities to include various parts of Ontario. Managed by Francophones for Francophones, it is playing a more important role in the development of community awareness and as a gathering place for members of the Francophone community across the province.

Thus, the success of this important community actor is attributable not only to the students educated there but also to staff members and partners in every part of the province. My best wishes for a happy anniversary and many happy returns to this important Francophone institution, which assures the vitality of the French fact in Ontario.

Honourable Mention: Commitment to Core French, Extended French and French Immersion Students in Ontario

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)* is the reference framework used at the international level to describe the proficiency of learners of a second language, including French. It was designed to provide a transparent, coherent and comprehensive basis for the development of language syllabuses and curriculum guidelines, the design of teaching and learning materials, and the assessment of foreign language proficiency.

In the past four years, the CEFR has been deployed in Ontario’s 60 English-language school boards as a tool to inform planning, instruction and assessment practices in French-as-a-second-language (FSL) courses. This initiative represents a commitment to helping Core French, Extended French and French Immersion students to improve their functional French-language skills. In applying these international guidelines, the Ontario government is committed to

  • increasing student confidence, proficiency and achievement;
  • increasing the percentage of students studying FSL until graduation;
  • increasing student, educator, parent and community engagement in FSL.

This common framework of reference could also possibly be a good basis for discussion among governments and the private sector to develop a common basis of assessment of language skills, as opposed to everyone having different standards. To be followed.

The Honourable Mentions Series is a series of 11 blog posts that the Commissioner is releasing to individually recognize the leadership shown by government ministries and agencies that have made efforts to expand the delivery of high-quality French-language services, as listed in his 2013-2014 Annual Report here.

*Website available in French only