Official Languages Support Programs Branch

Langues officielles / Official Languages


Programmes d'appui aux langues officielles


Francophone Minorities:
Assimilation and Community Vitality

Youth, Education and Economic Indicators


French Language Education in Canada - A Community Focus

In 1998-99, 155,872 students were enrolled in French minority-language education programs in Canada outside of Quebec. In order to illustrate the rising rate of participation of children eligible for French language schools, Table 19 looks at the proportion the minority school system represents of total enrollment compared to the proportion minority Francophones represent in the population. The index indicates a rising rate of participation, though the proportion of minority students is still below the community's weight in the population. Given the number of students in all schools have been dropping due to lower fertility, this index is intended to provide a more meaningful reflection of participation than raw enrollment numbers.

The first objective of any school system is to provide the basic educational experiences necessary to ensure the social, emotional and intellectual development of the student. Minority language schools have an additional objective, the maintenance and in some case the development of French language skills as well as the heritage and culture of this community. Ideally learning is enhanced because it builds on cultural references to family and community which have meaning to the minority language student.

The objectives of the French-language schools include:

  • supporting the student's identity and sense of belonging to the Francophone community;
  • providing a cultural center for the Francophone community;
  • enhancing the student's knowledge of the history and heritage of the Francophone community in Canada.

To achieve these aims, it is vital that the school be integrated into the life of the community and provide opportunities for full parental participation. School/community centres are an example of a model which attempts to achieve these ambitious objectives. The importance of the school to the survival of minority communities cannot be overestimated. As Canada's former Commissioner of Official Languages, Victor Goldbloom has noted:

Few can doubt the importance of minority language schools to the vitality of their communities. Such institutions provide an essential physical and social space within which members can meet and foster their cultural and linguistic heritage. Indeed, without minority language schools, the very conditions necessary for the preservation of Canada's linguistic duality would be markedly diminished.1

French minority language education is very distinct from French immersion, but there are also some similarities. Since the right to minority language education is vested in the parent and not the child, often children have only a weak mastery of French-particularly those from mixed families. For these children the French language school is in a sense an enhanced immersion experience. Enhanced because most of the children they are interacting with in the school setting will have a solid grasp of the French language. In this sense schools are not just places where children learn together, but also where they learn from each other.

French immersion is a program for the "majority" child-a child who lives in an environment in which his or her first language is constantly reinforced by the surrounding community. The minority child lives in an environment in which the first language is often not present outside of the home or the school. Minority language education is designed for children whose first language is French, but live in a largely Anglophone environment.

The school is therefore a crucial part of a minority community's response to that environment. Children only spend a small part of their time at school, and the home environment has a considerable influence on language learning. Close links between the school and the community are essential if the community is to profit from the potential synergies between the home and the school. In this relationship the weakness of the minority language in one context can be offset in the other.

When we talk about language we need to keep in mind its multifaceted nature. Language in a minority context is not just a means of communications or a form of human capital. It is also a symbol of identity and a vehicle for transmitting culture and values. A recent study prepared for Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages entitled Motivations for School Choices by Eligible Parents Outside Quebec looked at why parents choose the minority French stream for their children. The study is based on the opinions of 81 parents interviewed in four cities (Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax and Sudbury) in 8 groups.

The Charter defines which parents (" eligible parents ") have the right to have their children attend the minority official language school-not all eligible parents exercise this right. A percentage of eligible parents choose to send their children to English schools (including immersion).2 The study explores the reasons why eligible parents choose a school system over another.

The study identified the following key factors:

  • Distance is the most important factor.
  • The study noted a link between the couple's exogamy and the choice of the English school. It identifies a close relationship between the sense of belonging to a French-speaking community and the choice of the French school.
  • Parents of higher socio-economic status more readily choose the French school-this is associated with greater self-confidence, stronger cultural identity and a certainty that children will learn English.
  • English-speaking parents fear not being able to fully participate in the children's education and that the child will not learn English properly.
  • For a minority, limited extracurricular activities at the secondary level was a significant factor.
  • All parents agreed "Children must have a complete mastery of English to obtain good jobs and promotions". Parents choosing French schools gave greater weight to the learning of both languages.


Table 20.1 Motivations for School Choices by Parents


Parents choosing the English System

Parents choosing the French System

- No real local French-speaking community.

- Some perceive those who identify with the French-speaking community as tending to be fanatics who reject the English language.

- Describe a lively and dynamic French-speaking community which encouraged them to transmit their language and culture.

- School is the linchpin of the community - it is thanks to the school that members of the community are able to come together.

- Even parents strongly committed to the local French-speaking community expressed profound helplessness in dealing with the anglicization of their children and in conveying the value of the French language and culture.


- Not familiar with French schools (to the point of questioning their existence).

- Made much of the distance from their home to the French school.

- Meet Department of Education standards and offer instruction of equal value.

- Smaller schools mean :

they provide better supervision;

offer fewer extra-curricular activities.

- French schools are overcrowded and farther away.

- Influx of students for whom French is not the language spoken at home. Some very critical of this growth - requires scarce francization resources.

- Schools are increasingly mixed linguistically - slow down learning as teachers must devote time to basic linguistic instruction.

- Catholic schools are viewed by some as a barrier to access to the French schools; greater rigour/discipline.

- Sports, extracurricular activities and technical programs more limited.

- Reject idea that French schools would isolate children.

Source : Adapted from Motivations for School Choices by Eligible Parents Outside Quebec, A Study prepared for the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages by the Réseau Circum, January 1999.

Table 20.2 Motivations for School Choices by Parents


Parents choosing the English System

Parents choosing the French System

- Tend to identify themselves as Canadians or French Canadians.

- Tend to be uncomfortable with the concept of values common to Francophones.

- Identifying with the majority way of doing things was not seen as an important factor.

- Varied identity profile : Albertan, Quebecer, Acadian, Brayon, Franco-Canadian, Franco-Ontarian and French Canadian.

- For many, the French-speaking component was more important than the territorial component.

- Unanimous in seeing the French school as a way of consolidating values common to Francophones.

- None accepted the idea that it is important to imitate the majority's ways of doing things, except that it is necessary to know their language.


- English is essential to success in the workplace and bilingualism merely useful.

- French schools teach French to the detriment of English, while the immersion offers a more appropriate balance.

- English schools facilitate mobility, but this was not a factor since few expected to move in the short term.

- Not just English that is essential to success, but bilingualism. French schools better at teaching both languages.

- Some critical of immersion programs.

- English is essential to mobility, but bilingualism is a better guarantee.


- French is more difficult to learn than English.

- Some had children who were unable to learn French or to cope with two languages.

- Difficulty of French was a justification for choosing the French shcool, since English " is not learned, it is picked up ".

- In Sudbury, the Collège Boréal is important in convincing children to remain in the French secondary system.

Overall, the quality of instruction did not stand out as a factor influencing their choice. Psychological factors do not seem to be pre-eminent and political factors were of little importance. The concept of prestige associated with a language (English) was foreign to most. Where the number and percentage of Francophones meant that a genuinely Francophone social environment exists, the choice was between the French school and immersion classes-and not between the English and French system. The study noted that a number of parents who send their children to French schools would have serious reservations if increased access to the French school resulted in attracting children who do not have a command of French when they arrive at the school (Tables 20.1 and 20.2 contain more detailed findings from this study).


1. School Governance: The Implementation of Section 23 of the Charter, Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 1998, p.6.

2. The 1996 Census shows that of the 230,470 children with minority language education rights outside Quebec, 81,560 come from families where both parents are Francophone, and the remainder from families where only one parent is Francophone. In 1998-99, 155,873 children where enrolled in French first-language schools.





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