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  • Writer's pictureTrevor Greenway

Learning French in Quebec

The Quebec government wants everyone in the province to speak French – at work, at home and at school.

Yet in the Gatineau Hills, only around 20 per cent of the student population can take advanced French in junior and high school. There is no option for French immersion in the region due to a lack of francophone teachers in the system to run both programs.

Bill 96, the province’s overhaul of the Charter of the French language, has put additional pressure on English-speaking students heading to CEGEP. The bill, passed into law in 2022, now requires three additional core courses in French or three additional French-language courses for students to receive their diplomas. 

The shortfall of francophone teachers in West Quebec — namely at Hadley Junior High, which is the only local school to offer a French program — may be putting some students at a disadvantage. Those who don’t have top elementary French marks may not gain admission if spots are full. And those who aren’t strong enough to handle a curriculum designed for francophones of the equivalent grade don’t have the option of a dialled-down French immersion program. 

According to Payne, Hadley/Philemon’s Enriched French program hosts 267 pupils of the 1,350 student body – or around 20 per cent of the school’s population. Payne said that the school doesn’t restrict students from entering the program – even if their elementary school French marks or their Hadley French assessment aren’t up to snuff. However, when the programs are full, which is usually the case every year, some students are forced into the English stream, as a French immersion option doesn’t exist. 

Western Quebec School Board director-general George Singfield admitted that a step is missing in the region’s education system. 

“There is fundamentally, I suppose, a gap between the core and then the Enriched French,” Singfield told the Low Down. “That's a concern that has been raised.”

“We’re also struggling with finding the right teachers,” said Hadley/Philemon Wright principal Dodie Payne, explaining that the school increased its Enriched French program from two groups to three after a bigger demand for Enriched French. “It took us a long time to be able to build up to three groups because of staffing. If I’m a full-time teacher, you can’t make me teach French if I can’t teach French.”

Singfield explained that while there is concern over the number of French teachers available, the main worry is not having enough teachers of any language. “The teacher shortage is a problem everywhere,” said Singfield. “Right now, French immersion teachers are not really the area of concern. It's just teachers in general.”

The lack of French teachers in West Quebec is a result of funding and allocation. The average teaching salary in Quebec is $64,421, whereas in Ontario, teachers make $75,379 – a nearly $11,000 difference. At the start of the 2023-2024 school year, Education Minister Bernard Drainville confirmed that the province had a shortfall of more than 8,000 teachers. 

Singfield explained that the WQSB couldn’t just increase the number of Enriched French classes, as doing so comes with a financial cost. He said that the Enriched program at Hadley does not receive extra funding from the province, and adding more classes “really depends on the numbers.”

“Principals are given a staffing allocation based on the full number of students that are in their school,” he said, “not on how many are in immersion of Enriched French. There’s no distinction made. As a former principal, there were years when the numbers worked really well, and there were years when Enriched was very costly because I had to run another group, but then the class size was very low.”

Singfield said that while more and more parents are pushing their kids into French because of Bill 96 requirements, the school board is currently “meeting the demand.”

‘A lot riding on getting into the program’

Getting into the Enriched French program involves a number of factors – not all of which are in students’ control. 

According to Payne, the school uses several benchmarks to determine whether or not a student is suited to the Enriched program: students must complete Grade 6; have a “successful result” on the Grade 6 June French exam at their respective schools; and must also be successful on the Hadley Enriched French entrance assessment, which includes a written and an oral evaluation.

“If somebody fails that assessment, they are still allowed in the program if there is a spot, it’s just that we make sure that there are supports in place,” said Payne. 

It’s important to note that Hadley’s Enriched French is the only option for students looking for French-only language education. There is no French immersion option at the school, and St. Mike’s in Low doesn’t offer it. 

Expect grades to slip, say parents who’ve sent their child to Hadley’s Enriched French program. They told the Low Down that parents should expect more homework and be prepared for added stress as students juggle a heavy course load. 

Wakefield resident Jackie Hansen is one of those parents. 

Her son is in Grade 6 at Wakefield Elementary and was preparing to take Hadley’s Enriched French entrance exam the week of May 13. She said both Hansen and her son are nervous—not only about doing well on the exam but also about what’s at stake if he doesn’t get accepted. 

“I feel like his future in this province is uncertain unless he's in this program,” said Hansen. “And so it feels like there's a lot riding on him getting into the program and then being successful in the program. There is a huge difference between an enriched French program with an hour or two of homework a night that is incredibly intense – and one class of French.”

The gap between the Enriched French and what Hadley calls “core French” on the English side is wide. In Enriched French, students do nearly everything in French – science, geography, ethics and history and an advanced French-language class. In the Core French stream, everything is in English and students get one class of basic French per week. 

“[If] the goal of the government of Quebec is to have everyone learning French, I would hope that there would be more options to ensure that all kids can be successful in becoming fully bilingual,” added Hansen. “It really seems like an all-or-nothing model.”

Hansen is also concerned about whether her child will be accepted into the Enriched French program. She has been speaking to fellow French parents who want their francophone kids to spend more time in English environments. She knows of two francophone families who are sending their kids to Hadley next year.

“I'm feeling nervous knowing that he is going to be competing against kids who have been entirely educated in the French system,” Hansen said.“Have we studied enough? Should we be studying more? It's so hard to know.”

Colleen MacDonald is another parent who has serious concerns about the education model in West Quebec. Her son was accepted into Mont Bleu High School’s Sport-études program for baseball last year. But when he took the French entrance exam, he didn’t do well enough and the school dropped him from the sports program. 

“He was devastated,” said MacDonald. “But it kind of reinforces the need for French. It just shows you how disadvantaged these kids are.” None of the anglophone high schools in the Outaouais offer a Sport-études program.

While her son has since “found his place at Hadley,” MacDonald said that although her family was told Enriched French would be difficult, they had no idea just how intense it would be. 

“It's more work than we thought it would be,” said MacDonald, adding that there was, at times, up to three hours of homework a night. “We were warned by the school that there would be likely a drop in grades and also that there would be quite a bit of homework – more homework than what would happen in the English program. But even still, it was surprising the volume of homework that was coming home.”

Both Hansen and MacDonald say their kids are committed to learning French and understand its importance. But getting to the level that is needed to thrive in Quebec under Bill 96 is another.


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