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Parents win right to small schools

CANADA

Nathan Greenfield reports on a court victory celebrated by both French and English speakers.

MINORITY-LANGUAGE communities have won the right to force education ministers to set up schools for fewer than 100 pupils, despite government opposition on grounds of cost.

The Supreme Court has ordered the minister of education of Prince Edward Island, in the Gulf of St Lawrence, to provide French schooling in small communities.

The decision has been hailed as a victory by supporters of French-language education across Canada and of English education in Quebec.

The court ruled that the rights of the four French-speaking children of Noella Arsenault-Cameron had been infringed by transporting them to a school an hour away from their island community. It said this increased the probability that the children would be assimilated, thus losing their language.

The court also ruled against the minister's 1994 decision to refuse to give the go-ahead to a local French school because, in his view, a minimum of 100 students was needed.

"This decision is important because it not only re-affirms the minority education rights contained in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms but because it goes further," says Annette LBelle, president of the Commission Nationale des Parents Francophones.

"You think you have a very active community.But, unless young children go to school in their area, they will end up leaving it."

According to William Johnson, president of the English rights lobby group Alliance Quebec, the decision "reinforces the rights of all official language minority communities in Canada including the English-speaking minority of Quebec".

Chester Gillan, the island's minister of education, indicated that the province will enact the decision despite concerns about cost. He and Premier Pat Binns have warned of tensions between language groups if French-speaking children are able to attend small local schools while their English neighbours are sent by bus to larger district institutions.

The ruling alters the relationship between ministers of education and minority-language parents. It said that parents and their representatives are better placed to identify local needs than the provincial government.

It also ruled that minority-language schools must be established, even where numbers might be deemed too small, because "a school is the single most important institution for the survival of an official-language minority".

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