Parents of Francophone children on the Halifax peninsula face a bleak reality: switch their kids out of French schools before Grade 10 in order to assimilate them into English schools, or send them on a bus to the nearest French high school–l'École secondaire Mosaïque in Burnside.
Frustration has reached a boiling point over years drawn out waiting for a secondary school as parents watch their kids age out of the single French elementary school on the peninsula, École Mer et Monde or EMM. It opened in 2018 due largely to the advocacy of parents in the Francophone community, and serves students grades P-9.
As families are again dismayed by the lack of consultation on a new P-8 school being built in the north end, two parents are leading the charge to make sure Nova Scotia's French school system—the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial, or CSAP—responds to the needs of their kids, culture and community, at last.
The new elementary school, announced in 2021 and scheduled to open in 2025, is doing nothing to address the fact that students are aging out of CSAP options due to the lack of a French high school on the peninsula.
One parent advocating for school infrastructure on the peninsula, Jean-Phillipe Bourgeois, has two children at EMM.
"In Nova Scotia, the history of assimilation of Francophones and Acadiens is off the charts," says Bourgeois. "The CSAP got created so that all these Acadians in regions which were essentially not allowed to speak French in schools [would] have the right to actually speak French again. And that they would provide us comparable schools. It just hasn't materialized and now the worst part is that it's from our own fucking school council."
How did things get so far off track to the point where 75% of CSAP students are choosing to leave EMM and the CSAP before Grade 10 and head to English schools?
It centres around what another parent, Jeff Arsenault, calls "the last straw."
In 2018, the CSAP announced it would be providing a new school to the peninsula. Consultations about the new school were held with parents at every existing CSAP school in the HRM. At the time, it seemed like the CSAP was asking for input on whether one or two urban schools were needed for a growing student population.
"The fact is, all of our schools are just bursting at the seams. And we're not even serving our communities," says Arsenault. "We're not even getting all the [students] that we should be getting because the schools are so badly located. So, with the Burnside school, [CSAP] is thinking: 'Anything's better than nothing.'"
Following consultations, when it came time for the CSAP to vote on whether the new school was the solution that would best serve parents, students and the community, a single P-12 school solution received a resounding "No." A two-school solution received an equally resounding "Yes."
However, in September 2019, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development–EECD–announced it was investing $28.5 million to buy and renovate Newbridge Academy in Burnside and turn it into a single-solution French-language high school that would absorb all new students from the HRM, contrary to the vote results.
Parents and caregivers then responded saying how they would feel about sending their kids to school by bus to Burnside as a solution to the single overcrowded Summit high school in Bedford.
Here are a few responses:
"I wish that the students would remain in the community versus into a business park."
"Où est l’école promise sur la péninsule d'Halifax?"
"Je suis CONTRE l'école secondaire à Burnside. Je suis POUR une nouvelle école sur la péninsule. Notre famille quittera le CSAP pour le niveau secondaire si la seule école secondaire est à Burnside. Newbridge Academy est dans un parc industriel, pas une communauté. Les trajets en autobus et en voiture d'Halifax à Dartmouth durant les heures de pointes seront beaucoup trop longs. Nous habitons et travaillons sur le côté d'Halifax, donc cela rendrait la participation dans les équipes sportives, les évènements scolaires, les comités, etc., impossible pour nous. Si la solution est de mettre les enfants de la péninsule à l'école de Burnside malheureusement, nous n'aurons aucun choix que d'aller avec le système anglais."
"I am not comfortable with having my children leave the community in order to further their studies in French. If the choice is to go to Burnside or move my children into the English system, we would move to the English system, unfortunately."
Yet, 'École secondaire Mosaïque opened to students a year later as the sole CSAP high school for students on the peninsula.
Parents were dismayed, confused and frustrated. Why had the CSAP asked for a vote if they weren't going to follow its results?
“My speech since the beginning has always been, 'We're constantly trying to serve everybody,'" says Arsenault. "What happens is that we end up serving nobody well."
Arsenault is both a parent of two CSAP students as well as an elected CSAP school board member who serves the peninsula, where he lives. He's a passionate urbanist and architectural technologist. He's also suspended from his seat on the school board for bringing the Burnside debacle into the light.
According to documents received by The Coast, the CSAP had decided to purchase Newbridge Academy prior to consulting with parents about whether they would send their kids there and prior to voting on whether to send all peninsula students to Burnside. For CSAP parents like Bourgeois who were wondering what had happened, this was an unhappy answer.
"Parents started freaking out and losing it because we essentially had been lied to," says Bourgeois. "And when our elected official at CSAP got kicked out, it's because he sent a whole bunch of letters saying 'Yeah, the school would have been purchased in advance.' And then CSAP eventually decided to shovel all our kids to that school... we sent a letter of support saying, 'This is exactly what happened; we got screwed out of this.'
Bourgeois hates to say he told them so.
"A few years ago we told them, 'You're going to see the massive dropout rates.' And sure enough, that's exactly what happened."
"It's been about two years now where kids have been leaving the [EMM] school in the south end. And they're all dropping out. No one's going to Burnside from the peninsula and everyone's going basically to Citadel High.
"It's not a little bit of a drop out. It's nearly 75% to 80% of these cohorts are leaving for Citadel High. Out of the class of like 25, one student goes to fucking Burnside and the other ones go to Citadel. There's maybe 100 kids at Citadel that are just Francophone kids, but just chose to go there instead."
Arsenault's eldest child has decided to take the bus twice a day to Mosaïque. Arsenault has been fighting for a school for both of his children for many years. In 2020, he was elected to sit on the CSAP school board as the sole elected member in the peninsula. He is one of 18 elected members.
The CSAP added an 18th member in 2016 based on a ruling by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board. The ruling reads, in part:
"The creation of the CSAP under the Education Act resulted from the Province's commitment to providing the minority Acadian and Francophone communities within Nova Scotia with an education in their own language as guaranteed by Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ("Charter").
"It is recognized that minority language education is crucial to the preservation of the language and culture of these Acadian and Francophone communities. This right was highlighted by the Nova Scotia Department of Education in Education Horizons - White Paper on Restructuring the Education System which was released in February, 1995 [which] contained the following commitment:
"'The Acadian and French language population in Nova Scotia has added and will continue to add, a unique cultural, historical and political perspective to Nova Scotia. The introduction of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 formally recognized this contribution by guaranteeing minority linguistic rights. Nova Scotia is obligated to provide for these rights, by providing French and English Nova Scotians with equivalent education opportunities. These opportunities must reflect the unique experiences of both Acadian and French-language societies while providing the foundation for the continuation of their respective cultures in Nova Scotia.'"
Arsenault's voice in fighting for equivalent education opportunities within CSAP is now silenced due to his three-month suspension that took effect Nov. 4.
Arsenault says he’s not sure why he was suspended. He says the reason he was given by CSAP doesn’t make sense. In September and October, he spoke with Radio-Canada, CBC’s French-language equivalent, about the disappointment and frustration parents on the peninsula had been feeling for years with a lack of school infrastructure to meet their needs. This includes the lack of a high school on the peninsula and the poor designing of the new school in the north end which Arsenault doesn't want built at all until it can be considered properly urban and responsive to the needs of city living.
"For a long time, I thought it was purely the [CSAP's] ignorance of not knowing what living in a city was because we're so heavy with rural members," says Arsenault. "When you're talking about living in, not only in the rural areas, but also in suburbs, it's car-centric. You're living in your car. But when you're living in a city, we're not talking about kilometres distance, we're talking about metres, and there's just zero understanding and zero willingness to understand that that is a fact."
Although Arsenault is suspended, he's not alone in demanding better of CSAP. Bourgeois wants to do what he can so other parents don't have to make a choice to move their kids out of CSAP schools.
"The deal is: if there is a comparable service, or very close to, which would mean a Francophone high school on the peninsula which my kids can bike there or take the city bus or whatever option like every other kid on the peninsula, then I will force them to go to Francophone school.
"Given now that there is no such option, then I am giving them the choice that they can go to Mosaïque in Burnside and bus there if they want to. Or they can go to Citadel. Which is like a huge shame. I have to be say, 'Okay, this is so ridiculous that I have to give them that choice.' It hurts a lot."
He has sent letter after letter to the CSAP asking for the purchase of an urban CSAP school on the peninsula. He had hope in 2018 when they agreed to follow through with that. He had hope again in 2019 when they consulted with him and other parents. In 2020, when Mosaïque opened, he had hoped that another announcement was coming. When he was told his kids would have to bus to Burnside if they wanted to continue learning in French in grade 10, his hope changed to stagnation.
"We've been presenting to the CSAP for the past few years, on and off, and pushing them to reconsider their decision. After two years of harassing them, and harassing them and harassing them and presenting to them, they finally last year passed a motion saying that there was a need for high school on the peninsula. They pushed that to the minister, and the minister basically gave us the middle finger and said like, 'Nope, not gonna happen this year,' or 'We're not sure when that's gonna happen.'
"So, we're just basically still in limbo."
As both Arsenault and Bourgeois wait for the results of the next CSAP meeting this Saturday Dec. 9, an immediate problem hangs in the balance: the newly proposed P-8 CSAP school at the corner of Oxford Street and Bayers Road.
"It hasn't broken ground," says Arsenault. "They've promised opening March 2025. That's not going to happen. There's no way that's gonna happen."
If you’re wondering, “Hey, don’t they want a new school? Isn’t this a good thing?” you’d be forgiven, because the lack of accountability between the CSAP and the communities they serve is nothing if not confusing.
Here’s the thing: this is not the school that anyone wanted, says Arsenault, for a few reasons. First of all, it’s not a high school. Secondly, it’s designed as a suburban rather than an urban school meaning it’s prioritizing bus ports, concrete parking lots and access to major roads over the creation of usable outdoor space, sustainable transit, safety and a sense of community. Third, no one asked what parents wanted before designing it.
"Zero consultations," says Arsenault. "When they announced that as the site for the new build, as a designer and urbanist and a person who's been fighting for schools for a long time, I said to myself, 'I know what they're going to build here. It's going to be a suburban school that they're going to plop in the middle of the site and surround it with asphalt for the buses.'
"And that's exactly what it is. It's not an urban school. It's, again, not to serve our community, it's to serve people often off the peninsula. It's on the peninsula, but it doesn't serve people on the peninsula.
"If you look at if you look at it, barely anybody lives within 500 metres of that site. Though within 500 metres, you have the military base camp, probably battleships even, but it's basically sprawl and low density housing around there. Anybody who does not live on the peninsula is never going to understand this. But anybody who lives around the commons or downtown, we choose to live downtown like that. So you can do your business work, rest and play on the peninsula.
"They don't understand that easy concept of city living is a completely different beast. Some bean counters decided that that site was the best site for what reason? Because it was cheaper. Well, it's not cheaper because now we're surrounding it with asphalt for busing every single student there."
What’s even stranger is the number of abandoned schools in prime locations on the peninsula waiting to be purchased and renovated that Arsenault says would work much better. Bloomfield, for example.
Arsenault is asking to stop the new school from being built until, at minimum, it's redesigned. "It could 100% be a P-12 school. And that should be our worst case scenario."
On top of that, he says, "there's a couple of design things that no designer should have put on the plans," says Arsenault. "One particular thing is that the student entrance is off the bus lane. The main entrance space is the corner of Oxford and then the buses, of course, go around the back side. And the student entrance is basically a cattle walk. There's one door or two doors, one in one out, basically. And there's a ramp and a set of stairs. And, I'm not one of those helicopter parents, over protective, but if—you know, the young ones usually get off the bus first. They're in the door first. And the kid trips down those four stairs, and you got 500 kids coming in behind them...that's a problem. It's just horrendously stupid."
This is on the CSAP and the minister of EECD to solve. "If the change is not going to happen at the table, then change needs to happen at the elected official level," says Arsenault. "We need our own board to be able to work for us, because this board has worked against the Halifax community."
Both represent parents and families of students in the HRM. So, really, this is for the future of the Francophone community on the peninsula.
For his part, Bourgeois is sick of being held in limbo waiting for a high school his kids can graduate from someday soon.
"CSAP told us just to wait and see," says Bourgeois, "which is very frustrating. Parents of kids that are in Grade 9 or Grade 8 have most likely already done the choice. And because there's no alternative, you make those choices now. And the CSAP have just been silent essentially on all of this. Nothing about what they're working on or how they're approaching the minister. They just tell us 'Oh, we're working on it.'"
He says the CSAP doesn't want to talk, and few have, with parents because they don't want to revisit "the Burnside decision."
"Taking them two years and a half to finally admit that they're the problem is where we're at with these guys. We're just waiting."
Do you want to make a presentation to the CSAP school board? Here's how to proceed.
Do you want to know more about the next CSAP meeting on Saturday, Dec 9 or even attend? Here's more information.