By Elizabeth Murphy& Joan Netten

Much of the literature published on French first-language programs is devoted to legal issues of control and management (see Foucher,1991; Martel,1991) or to questions regarding the cognitive processes involved in language learning (see Cummins,1981,1986; Landry, 1982,1984). For this reason, and because of its relative newness, many educators not directly involved with French first-language education may be unfamiliar with the program, its characteristics, aims, history, and challenges. The purpose of this article is therefore to provide such information and, in particular, in relation to the Newfoundland context.

Characteristics and Aims

French first-language education is a program designed for French-speaking students in which French is the language of instruction in the classroom for most of the subject areas except English language arts and the means of communication in the school environment. The purposes of the program are two-fold:
1) to provide appropriate educational experiences in order to ensure the social, emotional and intellectual development of all students; and 2) to develop and maintain the French language skills and cultural heritage of this minority.

In order to achieve the first goal, the French first- language educational program in the province is similar to that of the anglophone program. It strives to attain the goals of education as formulated in the Aims of Education of Newfoundland -and Labrador (1984). Since all subjects are taught in French except for English language arts, learning resources are chosen which replicate as far as possible those used in the anglophone part of the system. Instruction in English language arts begins in grade 4 and consists of a daily period throughout the program. In general, time allotments and the areas studied are similar in both systems.

The specific objectives of the French school include to:

stimulate and strengthen the learner's sense of cultural and linguistic identity as a francophone; serve as a cultural centre for the French Newfoundland community; reinforce the learner's sense of belonging to the immediate francophone community.... provide the learner with the opportunity to develop a good knowledge of the history of the French Canadian people. (Province of Newfoundland,1991a,pp.5-6)

To achieve these aims, French is used as the language of the school's administration. All teachers and personnel are expected to be francophone. Most importantly, "the school encourages parental participation in school matters...and creates and maintains close ties with the francophone community of the immediate vicinity as well as with other francophone communities" (Province of Newfoundland,1991a,p.4).

One of the major adjustments needed in order to initiate a French first-language program was the development of school- leaving requirements for francophone students. These students are subject to similar requirements as anglophones with the exception of the relative importance of English and French language requirements.

The differing language requirements reflect the linguistic and cultural goals of the French first-language system as well as the ways in which the program is different from the anglophone programs, including French immersion. In fact, French first- language education is quite distinct from French immersion although some similarities in curriculum exist. French immersion is a second-language program designed to teach French to those whose mother tongue is not French by immersing the student in a French language environment in the classroom. Teachers are fluent in French but may or may not be francophone. Curriculum materials used are often those prepared for use in FFL programs, although with tremendous expansion of French immersion education in Canada, new curriculum resources are being developed which are prepared specifically for the French immersion student. Learning materials prepared specifically for French immersion pupils tend to be somewhat simpler in vocabulary and grammatical structures than those used by native francophones.

A considerable difference between the two programs is the amount of instructional time in French. In the French immersion program, instructional time in French decreases in favour of English as the student advances through the program. The aim is to make students fluent in French without negatively affecting their English language skills. In contrast, in the French first- language program, the percentage of instructional time in English remains the same throughout the program with the emphasis being on the development of French language skills. These distinctions may seem rather subtle but are of major importance in order to understand the two programs and the second language acquisition theories on which they are based.

In essence, French first-language education is, in most provinces including Newfoundland and Labrador, a minority- language program, whereas French immersion was conceived as a program for the "majority" child. Basically, the majority child lives in an environment in which the language spoken at home is reinforced by the surrounding community whereas the minority child lives in an environment in which his or her first language is not strongly supported outside of the home or the school. It is for this reason that French first-language education, as is the case in Newfoundland and Labrador is often called French minority-language education which "refers to the opportunity for those people who do not speak the language of the majority to receive schooling in their mother tongue". (Province of Newfoundland,1986,p.49). The distinction between majority and minority describes the sociolinguistic milieu within which schooling is provided and is the determining factor in designing the two programs.(see Lambert, Cummins).

French First-Language Education in Canada

In 1988-89, excluding Québec's enrolment figures, a total of 154,284 students were enroled in minority-language education programs in Canada. The establishment of these programs came about as a result of intense lobbying on the part of parents. For many years, francophone minority groups throughout Canada fought for improved access to education in French as well as for the right to manage their own schools. At first, access was slow and irregular and depended on the political and economic willingness of provincial governments.

In 1969, the adoption of the Official Languages Act accorded equal status, rights and privileges to English and French languages in Canada. In 197O, the Government of Canada instituted a program of financial contributions to the provinces "aimed at giving official-language minorities the opportunity to be educated or have their children educated in their own language" (Commissioner of Official Languages,199O,p.1O). However, for francophone minorities in many provinces, economic support was not sufficient. Political or constitutional recognition of minority-language education rights was necessary.

In 1982, Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provided this recognition and guaranteed the linguistic rights of both official language groups as well as the right to minority-language education. In brief, Section 23 guarantees that a parent has the right for his/her child to be educated in French if either parent satisfies any of the following criteria:

- his or her first language learned and still understood is French - he or she received primary school instruction in French in Canada - he or she has at least one child who has already received instruction at the primary or secondary level in French in Canada (Province of Newfoundland, 1991a,p.17).

The Charter further states that the right to minority-language education "applies wherever in the province the number of children of citizens who have such a right is sufficient to warrant the provision to them out of public funds of minority language instruction".

French First-Language Education in Newfoundland and Labrador

According to the 1991 census, the 2,400 francophones in Newfoundland and Labrador represent approximately .O4% of the population of the province and are concentrated primarily on the Port-au-Port Peninsula in St. John's and in Labrador City and (Canada,1991). It is interesting to note that the three francophone communities in the province have different characteristics due primarily to their origins and development, and consequently, somewhat different educational needs. The largest group of francophones reside in the Port-au-Port peninsula where 11 percent of the peninsula's population of 5,245 claim French ancestry, having descended from French settlers from France, St. Pierre et Miquelon, Acadia and the Magdelan Islands. This group is the most indigenous, homogenous and stable population. The francophones of Labrador City are also a relatively homogenous group.

The earliest French first-language classes were established in Labrador City in 196O in order to accommodate children of francophone miners from Qu‚bec and New Brunswick. The Labrador Roman Catholic School Board, in two of its schools, Notre Dame Academy and Labrador City Collegiate, has provided French education to these students using a curriculum from Qu‚bec. For their final year of high school, these students attend a school in Fermont, Qu‚bec where they may pursue their studies at a College d'enseignement g‚n‚ral et professionel (C‚gep). Many of these students pursue post-secondary education programs in Qu‚bec.

In 1975, a French immersion Kindergarten was established at Our Lady of the Cape Primary School at Cape St-Georges on the Port-au-Port Peninsula marking the beginning of French immersion education in the province. However, attempts at maintaining the French language and culture of the region were hindered by the dominance of anglophone culture and institutions. For many years in the area, not only was education available solely in English, but use of the French language in schools was often discouraged and, at times, forbidden. Initially, it was thought that the immersion program could respond to the linguistic and cultural needs of the francophone community; however, it soon became evident that as a program designed for anglophones learning a second language, immersion did not respond to the desires of the francophone community to restore its French language and heritage. In the Report of the Policy Advisory Committee on French Programs, the members recommended

that the government of Newfoundland and Labrador recognize that the French language school is the type of school which best meets the objectives of preserving and strengthening the language and culture of Francophone students. (Province of Newfoundland 1986,p.52)

The Committee further stressed that

from the perspective of language development, the needs of minority language pupils differ from those of pupils who have a totally English language background. If education is not provided in their mother tongue there is a very real danger of complete assimilation of these pupils over a period of time. (Province of Newfoundland,1986,p.52)

In 1983, in Mainland, another community on the peninsula, discussions began between a group of parents and the Port-au-Port Roman Catholic School Board. Parents were requesting that a French first-language program be established in the community's primary school. Discussion and lobbying continued; however, the school board responded that it "could not meet the request until the whole question of French educational programming had been thoroughly examined" (Cormier,Crocker,Netten,Spain,1985,p.6). Finally, in September, 1987, after considerable lobbying on the part of parents from the region, and following recommendations from a study established by the provincial ministry of education, the immersion classes were converted to French first-language classes. During this same year, it was announced that a French first-language school/community centre would be built in Mainland. The facility, largely financed by federal funds, officially opened in 1989 and now serves as a symbol of revival of French culture, language and identity for the people of the region. At the same time, the French immersion classes at Cape St-Georges became French first-language classes.

In St. John's, the French first-language classes opened in September, 199O after a long period of lobbying and negotiation which began in 1987. At that time, a petition containing the names of 23 students requesting the establishment of French-first language classes was sent to the Roman Catholic School Board for St. John's. When the school board rejected the petition, a committee of parents was formed to lobby for the classes. The committee submitted a formal proposal to the board requesting the start-up of a French section in a French immersion school. In January, 1988, the board conducted a registration to estimate the demand for French programs. When only 17 children registered, the board refused to set up French classes. After an appeal by the parents to the Department of Education, the Minister created an advisory committee to study the problem. This committee made certain recommendations but negotiations ended because the parents perceived no commitment on the part of government to francophone education in the province.

In August, 1988, the parents decided to take their case before the courts under Section 23 of The Charter and named the provincial government and the school board as defendants. The parents' committee then joined other parents' committees in the province forming La Fédération des parents francophones de Terre- Neuve et du Labrador (FPFTNL) which received financial assistance from the Department of the Secretary of State to help in its efforts to obtain French education in Newfoundland and Labrador. A date was set for the court case; however, due to a change in government, negotiations were reopened to settle the problem out of court. As part of the new attempt at resolving the problem, a survey was conducted to determine the number of francophones in the region. The conclusion of the survey which was conducted by a third party was that there were sufficient numbers to offer registration. Following the survey, the two parties entered into negotiations which led to an out-of-court settlement. After three years of negotiations, French first-language classes began in September, 199O in St. John's at the school under study. (Fédération des parents francophones de Terre-Neuve et du Labrador,199O).

During the 1992-93 school year, a total of 258 students were enroled in French first-language schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. All of these students attended Roman Catholic schools in St. John's, Labrador City or on the Port-au-Port Peninsula. The French-only school in Mainland on the Port-au-Port Peninsula operates classes from K-8 with a total enrolment of 71 students. Another 68 students were enroled in the K-8 all-French school in Cap St-Georges and 27 were enroled in the 9-12 dual-track school (English and French Stream). In Labrador, where French first- language education takes place in 2 schools (one K-6 and one 7- 1O), enrolment totalled 55. The Roman Catholic School Board for St. John's offered French first-language classes at Ecole St. Patrick with 37 students enroled in Kindergarten to Grade 5.

Challenges and Problems

The establishment of French first-language schooling in the province has not been an easy task. In addition to the preparation of school-leaving requirements, it has been necessary to find appropriate learning resources to support the curriculum, to adopt and modify curriculum documents, to develop guides for the teaching of language arts, in particular and to undertake considerable in-service preparation of teachers.

The considerable differences amongst the three communities also creates challenges. While the general aims of French first- language education are accepted by all, the route to educational success may not be the same in all three communities due to the educational and social background of the parents, the strength of the linguistic heritage of each group and the length of time French first-language education has been available to each community. It will take time to introduce a new provincially developed curriculum into the long tradition of a strong Québec- based program in Labrador, to develop an indigenous French first- language trained teaching population in the Port-au-Port Peninsula and to build a strong program in the St. John's area that will correspond to the needs of the entire francophone community.

There is also the difficult question of governance. In order for the French first-language program to respond to the needs of the francophone community, control and management of the program must in some way and to some degree be accorded to those who legally hold ownership. In the precedent-setting Mahé case (199O), the courts established a "sliding scale" whereby the degree of management and control would depend on the number of children involved. In the context of this case, the Supreme Court of Canada also ruled in relation to section 23 that,

official-language minorities in all provinces have a constitutional right to participate effectively in the management of the schools their children attend. In the opinion of the court, management and control ensure the vitality of the language and culture of the linguistic minority. (Commissioner of Official Languages, 1990, p.19)

The provincial government has established a committee to study the question of control and management of French schools and is expected to present its report in the near future. While no decisions have yet been made, it does appear that the francophone population in the area concerned should have a significant amount of control over francophone education; that is to say, francophones should decide on matters referring to curriculum, staffing, and other pedagogical aspects of their schooling. (Province of Newfoundland,1986,p.51)

Finally, the most problematic aspect of French first- language education in the province relates to the size of the francophone population. The low numbers of francophones in the province raises questions about the viability of the program itself, about the possibility of governance and about the linguistic and cognitive development of the students involved. Yet, without this form of education, a valuable cultural community risks assimilation.


French first-language education in Newfoundland and Labrador is a program designed for children whose first language is French but who are immersed in an majority anglophone society. It is a program which aims to reinforce and strengthen the cultural and linguistic identity of francophone communities in the province. The program has thus far had a short but detailed history in both Canada and Newfoundland. Its development has been characterized by intense political lobbying and by active parental involvement.

If past events are indicative of future trends, it is likely that French first language programs will continue to grow. At the same time, the pattern of development of this type of education along with its aims and objectives raise complex and provocative questions and many issues have yet to be resolved. It is not clear whether or not the program's aims and objectives can be realized effectively in an essentially anglophone society such as Newfoundland's. The role of parents in control and management of the program will continue to be a subject of debate which may find resolution only in the courtroom. The program's impact on the French communities and cultures of this province has yet to be measured and it is not known whether or not this impact is as intended.

As well, other issues will arise as French first-language education grows and expands and those responsable for the programs will need to determine answers to broader questions such as: What is the impact of French first-language education on other programs such as French immersion? To what extent can the education system provide for the needs of minority groups? Can the province afford to make French first-language education work? Can it afford not to?


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