Hay River battle over school swap ‘unites community’

Hay River battle over school swap ‘unites community’
Suzette Montreuil says Hay River’s French and English school boards have united in their fight against the GNWT.Photo: Suzette Montreuil.

A unanimous decision by Hay River’s French and English school boards to refuse the GNWT’s proposed school swap has united the community against the government, according to the president of the Commission scolaire francophone (CSF).

Suzette Montreuil told The Journal last week that Hay River’s fight with the GNWT has fostered communication and cooperation between the two school boards and “increased the level of solidarity in terms of the need for more infrastructure for our board and École Boréale in Hay River, and that’s a good thing.”

The GNWT proposal, which would see École Boréale students use specialty classrooms and the gymnasium at the English Harry Camsell school, was made earlier this year in response to a court order in 2012 to provide French schools in Hay River and Yellowknife with equal services.

The GNWT is arguing a student swap would be beneficial to both schools in Hay River, where the English school has been facing declining student enrollment.

“I am disappointed that we were unable to come to an agreement in Hay River,” Jackson Lafferty, minister of Education, Culture and Employment, said in a statement last week.

“We felt (the school swap) approach would meet the needs of all parties, make better use of existing schools and avoid having to spend an estimated $13 million on new infrastructure when utilization rates and enrolments have been declining over the last 10 years.”

In a public meeting the week before, Hay River residents expressed unanimous outrage at the GNWT’s proposed school swap. Both CFS and the Hay River Education Authority chose to refuse the proposal after hearing concerns at the meeting.

“(The parents) thought it would create a lot of tension in the community and, in their perspective, would simply transfer the problem of inadequate facilities from one board to the other,” Montreuil said.

“If you are going to lead, you can’t lead in a direction your people really do not want to go. That’s why it was important for us to hear from the parents and to take their perspective into consideration,” she said.

Montreuil said the board’s legal fees have already amounted to more than $1 million, which is money that could be going directly to students at École Boréale to provide them with an updated gymnasium and specialty classrooms.

“That’s where our major concern rests, is it’s money that could have been spent towards giving better services to the youth, so that’s a regret,” she said.

Montreuil said the court case will define French language rights in the NWT. Similar battles are being waged across the country, including in Yukon where the French school board recently announced it would be taking its case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“It’s not a new phenomenon,” she said. “It all comes out of Article 23 and Article 24 of the Constitution that talks about the right to French first language education.”

The GNWT has chosen to appeal the 2012 court order and was heard by a judge Monday. Lawyers are expected to make a statement in the following days.

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