Franco-Ontarian parents have long complained that the province’s French-language schools admit too many pupils who aren’t French speakers, putting in jeopardy their children’s linguistic development.

Now, Ontario’s French school boards are facing the prospect of a constitutional challenge over the effect of admissions practices that have resulted in nearly half of their students being non-francophone.

A former school trustee, Basile Dorion, has secured funding to prepare a court case, arguing that franco-Ontarians are being deprived of their constitutional right to an education in their mother tongue.

Mr. Dorion said the high number of anglophone students has effectively turned French schools into French-immersion programs. “They go there to learn French, not to learn in French,” he said in an interview.

When Josée Guindon started working as a substitute teacher at a French Catholic board in the Windsor area four years ago, she saw that students played in English at recess, their spoken French was riddled with anglicisms and some even needed Google Translate to complete their school work.

Another parent, Geneviève Aubin, enrolled her children in a French Catholic school after moving to London, Ont. Within months, she said, their French syntax and spelling suffered. “The kids are all talking to each other in English. I heard zero French.”

French school boards in Ontario are guaranteed by Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which grants anglophone and francophone minority communities access to public education, where numbers warrant.

That right is limited to Canadians whose mother tongue is of their province’s linguistic minority, or who received their elementary schooling in that language. However, Ontario allows non-rights holders to register in French schools if they are approved by an admission committee.

According to Education Ministry data, 45.3 per cent of students enrolled at schools in Ontario’s French boards in 2017-18 didn’t have French as their first language.

It was 34.8 per cent in 2010-2011 and has inched up every year.

The ministry’s figures are similar to metrics from a Crown agency, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), which said that 44 per cent of Ontario French-board students in 2014-15 didn’t have French as their first language at home.

The EQAO disclosed its figures to Radio-Canada three years ago. The agency declined to provide updated data to The Globe and Mail this month.

It is an issue that is particularly stark since Ontario has four separate publicly funded systems – French public, French Catholic, English Catholic and English public – vying for government funding.

Mr. Dorion said he tried without success to get three of the French boards in the province to explain their policies. Two of those boards, MonAvenir and Viamonde, declined to comment when contacted by The Globe and Mail. The third, Providence, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Alexandra Adamo, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in a statement that French boards have the authority to decide which students are admitted.

“All students enrolled in French-language schools are admitted either because they have at least one parent who holds rights in French, or because they have demonstrated through an admissions committee that their French is at a level that allows them to succeed in a French-language school,” she said.

Ms. Guindon, who is now a Western University master’s student researching French boards, said in an interview that the problem is in part owing to the Charter requirement that minority-language instruction be only provided when numbers warrant.

Initially, admission was open beyond rights holders out of fear that French schools wouldn’t have the numbers to justify their existence.

But she and others fear franco-Ontarians will become a minority in their own schools. Ms. Aubin recalled that her youngest daughter was shy and didn’t speak up in kindergarten so the staff addressed her in English, assuming that she was an anglophone.

Anglophone parents are increasingly interested in having their children learn French because it gives them a competitive edge. According to a study released this year by the Official Languages Commissioner, 80 per cent of Ontarians believe more needs to be done so young people can become bilingual. But while French immersion is an option in the English system, parents see limitations as schools struggle with finding qualified French teachers; some of these parents then look at schools within the French boards.

One complication in the debate about who should be admitted to French schools is that being francophone and having the right to French education are not synonymous.

Ontario schools can admit non-rights holders who are fluent in French. But conversely, there are also students who have the constitutional right to education in French even if their grasp of the language is shaky.

In some cases, the parents are a mixed-language couple. It only takes one francophone parent to make a child a rights holder, even if the family doesn’t speak French at home.

In other cases, it is a franco-Ontarian family that prefers using English. Ms. Guindon recalled a children’s party where she heard a mother, a rights holder, tell her child, “You don’t have to speak French, love, we’re not in school.”

Earlier this spring, Mr. Dorion obtained a $15,000 grant from the Court Challenges Program, which helps people initiate judicial cases dealing with constitutional and human rights. The federal government finances the program, but an independent panel chooses the recipients.

The grant is for the development of a case that tests the validity of the current admission system. Mr. Dorion has retained the Caza Saikaley law firm to prepare the groundwork.

The Globe and Mail, July 14, 2019