Trudeau's kids are in a class of their own

21st January 2011 at 00:00
Canada Ottawa's French immersion programme comes under fire for streaming out special needs pupils

They are called "Trudeau's children", the millions of English-speaking children in Canada who, thanks to French immersion (FI) at school, grew up bilingual.

In its early years, the system was attacked by some critics who complained that prime minister Pierre Trudeau - who held office in 1968-79 and again in 1980-84 - was ramming French down their throats.

But with more than 60 per cent of students in the bilingual capital Ottawa now choosing the immersion route and studying almost exclusively in French, there are growing concerns that it has become a de facto method of selecting and streaming pupils - a practice officially phased out almost 20 years ago.

According to Rob Campbell, a trustee of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, parents of children in the English programmes "often feel like second-class citizens in their own schools". "They point out that there are more kids with behavioural problems or special needs in the English programmes than in the French," he says.

The numbers bear out these perceptions. About 11 per cent of the students in the FI programme have special needs, which is about the provincial average. In the English stream, as many as 25 per cent of students have special needs, or are known as "allophones" - meaning they speak neither English nor French at home.

"This trend has made FI programmes, frankly, more Caucasian and, stripped of special needs education, produces an easier to teach population," says Campbell.

Officially, FI programmes are open to all students. However, it is an open secret that, acting under the mistaken belief that the additional stress of learning in a second language would be too much for these students, school officials have warded off special needs children and allophones. Twice in the past few years, the District School Board has issued memos warning principals against this practice.

Such fears are unfounded, says Heather Stauble, president of the Ontario branch of Canadian Parents for French. "If students have difficulty reading or in comprehension, those difficulties are the same in English or French. When they receive appropriate supports, they should succeed in French as in English."

Nor are allophone students disadvantaged, she says. "Research shows that allophone students - students who are already language learners by virtue of being in a country where their mother tongue is not a major language - are extremely well-equipped to succeed in immersion programmes," says Ms Stauble.

The District School Board is aware of this research and, according to executive superintendent Jennifer Adams, it is now putting more resources into special needs education in FI courses. "For example, there is a renewed focus on oral language abilities in the French language to support the development of reading and writing skills," she says.

How far this reverses the trend for richer and better-educated parents monopolising FI - surely not what Trudeau intended - remains to be seen.

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