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Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 - French Education in New Brunswick Inquiry

Inquiry - French Education in New Brunswick

Hon. Rose-May Poirier: Honourable senators, I appreciate this opportunity to speak to you today about the evolution of French-language education in New Brunswick schools.

I would like to begin by sharing a little of my own personal experience, and then I will provide an overview of the history of this issue from the deportation to the present, which is to say, the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

I was born into a small Acadian family living in an anglophone community in east-central New Brunswick. The little town of Chatham was recently amalgamated with Newcastle to create the new City of Miramichi.

Back in the mid-1960s, there were no French schools in the region. Honourable senators, imagine a six-year-old girl, somewhat pampered by her parents, going to school for the first time in a completely unknown environment where she does not know the language. My first day of school was a little easier than my big sister Nancy's. On her first day, she knew just one English word: apple.

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Wanting to help me, she taught me a few words in English to prepare me for this new world.

At home, it was up to my father to help us with our school work. He was a veteran of the Second World War and worked as a shoemaker, so he had been exposed to English and could help us with our homework in the evenings.

My mother, a housewife, took care of the home and the well-being of the family. I remember learning the French words for ceiling, door, chair, cat, et cetera, in French class, but never learning full sentences, at that time. A few years later, I was able to help my younger brother when he started school.

I am pleased to say that, since then, things have changed for the better. In 1987, Miramichi got a school and community centre to serve the French population in that region. Frankly, things improved with the arrival of the Honourable "Little" Louis Robichaud. Louis could not hide his political ambitions from a very young age. He even signed his graduation yearbook, "Louis J. Robichaud, Premier of New Brunswick." At the age of 27, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly, representing the riding of Kent in the 1952 election. Eight years later, in 1960, he achieved his dream and became the first Acadian to be elected premier, a position he held until he was defeated in 1970.

During that decade, the premier's vision or mission was to ensure that all people of New Brunswick had equal access to education in the language of their choice. Because of the hard work of Premier Robichaud, in 1969, the Province of New Brunswick officially became a bilingual province — the only one in Canada.

Thirty years later, when he first took office, the Honourable Bernard Lord reviewed and updated Bill 88, the Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities in New Brunswick. As part of this exercise, the Lord government also ensured that a periodic review would be conducted every 10 years.

The education reform or equal opportunity program, which was initiated by "Little Louis," was supported by Richard Bennett Hatfield, who served as the Premier of New Brunswick from 1970 to 1987. During that time, the work continued under the direction of Premier Hatfield, and the cause of French education in New Brunswick grew. The New Brunswick Community College network, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, was established in 1972. Today, it has campuses in Bathurst, Campbellton, Dieppe, Edmunston and the Acadian Peninsula.

In 1978, the Université de Moncton opened its doors. After 34 years, this institution has three campuses, one in Moncton, a second in Shippagan, and a third in Edmunston. During that same period, honourable senators, the Sainte-Anne school and community centre in Fredericton opened its doors in 1978, the Samuel-de-Champlain school in Saint John welcomed it first students in 1985, and the Carrefour Beausoleil in Miramichi opened in 1987. All these schools and college and university campuses were built during the 17 years that the Honourable Richard B. Hatfield was premier of New Brunswick.

The Franco-Acadian schools in Franco-Acadian regions of New Brunswick have been around for a long time. In fact, the first Acadian schools were established in the early 19th century, with the first one established in Saint-Basile in the northern part of the province in 1817.

The extraordinary thing about all this development in the 1970s and 1980s is that the schools were built in regions that were primarily anglophone, with a fairly large francophone minority of 20 per cent or more.

Just as importantly, successive governments all worked to strengthen and improve New Brunswick's French and French immersion education systems. At times, the people of the province had to provide a lot of encouragement to make that happen. However, thanks to New Brunswickers' patience and dedication, we now have a good school system.

As an Acadian from New Brunswick who could not attend a French school in 1960, I find it impressive and encouraging that English-speaking parents are now demanding that their government provide access to French immersion classes for their children.

As recently as 2008, many parents demonstrated their firm belief in an early immersion system beginning in grade one. This belief was clearly demonstrated during rallies organized by anglophones following the Croll-Lee report. The report wanted to make French immersion available only to children in grades five and up. As a result, many parents invoked their status as rights holders so that they could send their children to French schools, as reported in Volume 3, Number 34 of the weekly newspaper L'Étoile.

In light of that expression of dissatisfaction, and following a judicious review, the government of the day backpedalled and introduced immersion beginning in grade three in English schools. The cultural question also has to be closely examined. If parents do not have knowledge of French, and if children do not identify with Franco-Acadian culture, our Franco-Acadian schools could become immersion schools.

Honourable senators, all of this goes to show that, in New Brunswick, when it comes to teaching French in our school systems, things have changed for the better. Still, we must keep listening to the minority Franco-Acadian population.

Seven or eight years ago, a young child with a very English-sounding last name, but with a French mother, was registered in a French school. To his parents' great surprise, the school staff questioned their decision to send their child to a French school, since their name was English.

Just recently, a French-language school celebrated its French pride. The teaching staff asked students not to speak English at home or watch English television channels, and to only listen to French music. Imagine this young student going home and thinking that he should not speak to his father because he was English-speaking. Imagine the pain of that child and his father.

As adults, we know that the teaching staff at the school did not intend to cause friction among families. That is why we must be sensitive to the different situations that exist in homes today.

The French education system in New Brunswick is not perfect. We have made a lot of progress, but we must remain vigilant in order to protect our culture while still respecting the rights of others.

Like the Honourable Senator Losier-Cool, I would like to mention the names of some illustrious individuals, from my corner of Acadia, who I think have always had French education in New Brunswick close to their hearts. If we have made progress in the last 200 years, it is surely because of these pioneers and fathers of the Acadian renaissance of the 19th century.

First, I would like to mention Monsignor Marcel-François Richard. He was the youngest of 10 children of Pierre-Luc Richard, a farmer, and Marie-Tharsile Barriault. Born on April 9, 1847, he became known over the years as the father of the Acadians. He was also an excellent builder. In addition to several churches, convents and presbyteries, among other things, he built more than 50 schools to educate his cherished Acadians.

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Further to the first and second Acadian National Conventions, he proposed that August 15 be designated the Acadian national holiday and that the Acadian people adopt the tricolour with the papal-coloured star of Mary on the blue stripe as their flag, and he implemented these proposals. Finally, Father Richard gave us our national anthem, Ave Maris Stella.

Father Richard's work and devotion were key to the survival of the Acadian culture and the French language in New Brunswick. The Honourable Pascal Poirier, lawyer, public servant, author and senator, helped Marcel-François Richard.

Born on February 15, 1852 in Shediac, New Brunswick, Pascal Poirier was the twelfth and last child of farmer Simon Poirier and his wife Ozithe. Recommended to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald by Father Camille Lefebvre, Pascal Poirier accepted the position of postmaster of the House of Commons in 1872 when he was only 25 years old.

However, this did not mark the end of his ambition, since Pascal Poirier went on to become known as an author and published works entitled L'origine des Acadiens, Le père Lefebvre et l'Acadie and Le parler franco-acadien et ses origines.

Together, Pascal Poirier and his compatriot Marcel-François Richard are among the most important figures of the Acadian renaissance. Pascal Poirier also attended the 1881 Acadian National Convention and helped to establish a separate national holiday for Acadians.

Pascal became a spokesperson for Acadians outside the Maritimes when he was appointed to the Senate in 1887 at the age of 38. He remained a senator until the age of 86, spending a total of 48 years in the Senate. In recognition of the Honourable Pascal Poirier's many years of service to the French language, he received a gold medal from the Alliance Française in 1929. This shows Poirier's devotion to the Acadian people.

Lastly, I would like to talk about Sir Pierre-Amand Landry, an Acadian lawyer, political figure and judge. Born on May 1, 1846, in Memramcook, New Brunswick, he was the fourth of nine children of Amand Landry and Pélagie Caissie. His father was considered one of the leaders in Memramcook and was the first member of Acadian origin from New Brunswick elected to the Legislative Assembly.

The young Pierre-Amand Landry was the first Acadian to become a lawyer. When his father retired, Pierre-Amand ran in the provincial election and was elected on July 5, 1870, at the age of 24. His political career coincided with controversy over school reform in 1871. The Common School Act was passed that year, which meant that the school tax would fund only non-denominational schools.

Honourable senators, we know that, at that time, all Acadian schools in New Brunswick were denominational schools. Pierre-Amand Landry took his place in the vanguard of the struggle for Acadian rights. He was in Caraquet in 1875, at a demonstration against the school tax.

In 1883, Pierre-Amand Landry ran in the federal election and was elected to the House of Commons, where he defended the interests of New Brunswick's Acadians. He talked to Sir John A. Macdonald about the need to appoint an Acadian senator. Pierre-Amand Landry endorsed the candidacy of Pascal Poirier who, on March 9, 1885, became the first Acadian senator.

In my opinion, if Monsignor Marcel-François Richard is the father of the Acadians, then Pascal Poirier and Pierre-Amand Landry are definitely the godfathers.

Coming back to the 21st century, I would like to talk about another Acadian, Yvon Fontaine. Mr. Fontaine is the eighth rector of the Université de Moncton and the first graduate of that institution to be appointed to that position. In 2007, he became the first Acadian to receive an honorary degree from the Université de Poitiers. Although Yvon Fontaine is retiring this year, I have no doubt that he will remain very active in the Acadian education system.

Lastly, I would like to mention the name of a very talented young artist who is making a name for himself across Canada and around the world. He is well-known in the United States, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Africa and Asia. The young troubadour, singer and ambassador, Christian "Kit" Goguen, is a product of Acadia. Mr. Goguen graduated from the École Mgr Marcel-François-Richard in Saint-Louis-de-Kent and, in 2003, he won his first singer-songwriter award at the Gala de la chanson in Tracadie.

In 2006, he won the Rideau-Acadie and Le choix du futur awards in Moncton, New Brunswick. He has recorded a number of albums with the group Ode à l'Acadie, including the songs entitled Petitcodiac, Grand-Pré, and his version of The Gathering Song, in Mi'kmaq, which talks about the collaboration between the Mi'kmaq and the Acadians. He also has a very successful solo career and has recorded with Cirque du Soleil. Not bad for a young Acadian from back home!

Although many wonderful things have been accomplished over the years, we cannot take our future for granted. We must continue to come up with ways to improve education for our young people in the language of their choice. We must keep the doors of our schools open to all families interested in learning French.

With all of the great Acadians who have been appointed to the Senate, I am confident that our great Acadians of tomorrow will be up to the task of safeguarding and advancing Franco-Acadian education in New Brunswick for our grandchildren.

French education in New Brunswick has a solid foundation and is in good hands. Recently, the Alward government announced that significant funding would be allocated to the Department of Education to ensure good academic results.

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