The National Network
In 1977, Keith Spicer was serving as Canada’s first-ever Commissioner of Official Languages. Interested in the bilingualism of Canada’s youth, he met with groups of parents across Canada who wanted their children to learn French as a second language (FSL) but who ran into roadblocks at the local school board.
To get the ball rolling, Mr. Spicer offered to find some seed money—enough to organize a national conference of like-minded parents. The result was an event called “Parents’ Conference on French Language and Exchange Opportunities,” which took place in Ottawa in March of 1977. It was during this weekend-long conference that Canadian Parents for French was officially founded as a volunteer-based advocacy group, a collective of parents who wanted to ensure that children would have the opportunity to become bilingual in the Canadian school system.
The first conference determined a few things that are fundamental to the history of CPF. The group outlined its goals and elected its first National Board of Directors, led by inaugural president Pat Webster of Ontario. Her fellow directors were Judith Madley (British Columbia), David Saunders (Prairie Region), Elizabeth Annesley (Quebec), and Mary Lou Morrison (Atlantic Region).
This original small group of concerned parents who met in Ottawa nearly 40 years ago has evolved into a proactive national network with 11 Branch offices and some 150 Chapters in communities coast to coast to coast.
BC and Yukon Branch
Let’s take a trip back through time to see where CPF came from and why, where it is today and where it might be in the future.
It all began way back in the mid-1960s when a few Anglophone parents in St. Lambert, Quebec decided their children would be better off knowing both English and French. It was unprecedented and met with much resistance at the time but ultimately the parents were successful and Canada’s most popular program of choice was born. But soon the parents realized that they didn’t have all the tools required to support their children. And furthermore, their kids needed to be exposed to French outside the classroom so that their new language would become more real to them. It was another “ah-ha!” moment and in 1977, Canadian Parents for French was born. The following year, a branch opened up here in British Columbia to support students in immersion programs, which had begun in 1968.
Meanwhile back at the national headquarters in Ottawa, each province was represented by a board member who effectively became the president of their provincial branch. The first branch president in BC was Judy Madley, a dedicated parent advocate. As there was no office and no staff, all the work was done from volunteers’ homes. And that was before home computers became the norm so many of the old records in our office are actually hand-written! A search through the old national newsletters reveals that CPF BC’s first office opened on Richards St. in downtown Vancouver in the spring of 1985.
Membership in CPF was free at first, for there were only a few hundred students in immersion programs in the whole province. After a few years a nominal $5 fee was charged. Today we charge families $25 for an annual membership. Out of that amount though, $20 is returned to the member’s local chapter to help put on events that enhance the French learning experience. Not a bad deal at all!
The biggest challenge faced by parents in those early days was opposition from school boards. One district actually had trustees quit the school board rather than be associated with French immersion. They viewed the second language program as ridiculous, given that Western Canada was primarily English-speaking. Furthermore, in their eyes, the implementation of a French immersion program could be seen as pandering to Québécois. In spite of these early hardships, the branch and its parent volunteers soldiered on undaunted and the program grew steadily.
Fast forward to the late 1990s and suddenly growth in French immersion started to take off in BC. In 1999 there were 29,979 students enrolled in this province. Today, seventeen years later, there are 52,545, with another 880 French Immersion students in Yukon. These all time highs for both BC and Yukon are truly remarkable!
Today, we have French immersion programs in Victoria and Vancouver, Chetwynd and Prince Rupert, Mill Bay and Campbell River, 100 Mile House and Golden, and dozens of other communities as well. Supporting those students are our 45 very active chapters who put on extra-curricular events (usually in French); provide awards and scholarships to students, encouraging them to continue studying French after graduation; and promote French second language programs to ensure there is always interest because—let’s not forget—these are programs of choice that wouldn’t exist unless parents demanded them.
CPF has been behind the emergence of pretty much every new immersion program not only in BC and Yukon, but also across Canada. Over the years we have advocated for the removal of enrolment barriers so that French second language learning is accessible to more students than ever. Interestingly, the intangible benefits of second language acquisition can sometimes have a huge impact in individual communities.
Consider the case of Cranbrook. In recent years, two companies based in Quebec, Tembec and Abitibi, have come to this forest community, becoming major employers. There are now industrial workers and skilled labourers who are learning French to progress in their respective companies and to communicate with fellow employees across the country and the world. Even ten years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that learning French would bear any relation to the work being done at the mill in Cranbrook. Now, for some workers, it is a necessary part of their livelihood.
Hazelton—total population of 6,000—provides an interesting case study in which the French immersion program was able to go ahead on the condition that the First Nations students be encouraged to participate in order to keep enrolment sustainable. Parents of First Nations children were willing to consider enrolling them in French immersion, provided that they could also continue to learn the local language, Gitxsanimix. Now, every student in the school, regardless of heritage, learns 90 minutes of Gitxsanimix every week. What an inspiring model for the entire country!
And this brings us to the fact that many countries around the world have adopted the Canadian model for delivering immersion: the United States, Finland, Spain, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore all offer similar immersion programs.
There has been much in the press about French second language programs and about CPF over the years. Do you remember the “Camping out for French” headline from 2003? Parents in New Westminster had camped outside schools, as a means of ensuring kindergarten spots in French immersion for their children. Luckily, the school district of the region now allows parents to register their children for kindergarten at birth. “Time for Cherry to go” in 2004 was another story that brought Canadian bilingualism to the forefront. This campaign opposed the anti-French rants made by Hockey Night in Canada‘s Don Cherry. While it attracted a lot of support, die-hard hockey fans were rankled. On a more positive note, “Students Flocking to French in Record Numbers” has dominated the headlines for the past eight years straight, demonstrating the overwhelming popularity of French second language programs.
In 2008, the big news story concerned the cancellation of early French immersion in New Brunswick. The plan was to drop the program in September. Once again though, CPF and its partners from coast to coast were successful in convincing the New Brunswick government to hold off on the decision, so that further public consultation could take place. On August 5, 2008, the New Brunswick Department of Education reversed its decision and ruled on allowing early French immersion to continue. However, the program now starts in Grade 3 rather than kindergarten or Grade 1.
According to the most recent enrolment statistics, there are approximately 283,000 students learning French as a second language in British Columbia. This number includes the 53,000 in French immersion and Intensive French, and 180,000 in Core French. Another 5,000 BC students are enrolled in francophone programs. Meanwhile, in Yukon, French immersion enrolment has reached 880, the highest it’s been in some time. This is truly spectacular! And it wouldn’t be possible without the assistance of Canadian Heritage, the BC Ministry of Education, amazingly supportive school districts and teachers, the community at large, and, of course, the dedication of parents and students.
Despite all the success CPF has achieved over 40 years, there is a new set of challenges ahead for the organization. For instance, there is a critical teacher shortage resulting from teachers retiring and not being replaced by a sufficient number of new teachers. Additionally, there still isn’t guaranteed access to French programs in all areas. Students who speak neither English nor French when they enter public school are discouraged from enrolling in French immersion, and there is an inequity of resources available to students with learning difficulties. In many districts, parents are still not included in medium and long range planning for French programs. As an organization, we are working on all these issues on a daily basis.
And the future? What does it hold for French second language learning in BC & Yukon? We will likely see overall enrolment dropping until 2015 or 2016, but the demand for more French immersion classes and the demand for more qualified French teachers will continue unabated. We will see more and more new Canadians who will want their children to learn both of Canada’s official languages. We will continue to work closer with BC and Yukon’s francophones – of which there are more than 60,000!
The one thing that will not change here at CPF is the belief that knowing French and English will open up a world of opportunities for our youth. After learning both of Canada’s official languages, not only will youth be more culturally sensitive, but they will also be more at ease travelling anywhere in Canada or around the world, and more open to learning additional languages. CPF-BC & Yukon intends to be there every step of the way to help them achieve their bilingual dreams
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but those most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin