After a ten-year battle, Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that the province of British Columbia has failed in its responsibility to provide equal access to minority language education by underfunding its only French-language school board.
In a 7-2 decision with implications nationwide, the country’s highest court found that the British Columbian government had violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees education in one of Canada’s two official languages, and awarded , the Conseil scolaire francophone (CSF) de la Colombie-Britannique CAN$6 million in damages for underfunding its school bus transportation system and CAN$1.1 million for operations.
In the ruling, Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner wrote, “The fair and rational allocation of limited public funds represents the daily business of government. The mission of a government is to manage a limited budget in order to address needs that are, for their part, unlimited. This is accordingly no pressing and substantial objective here that can justify an infringement of rights and freedoms. Treating this role as such an objective would lead society down a slippery slope and would risk watering down the scope of the charter.”
The case revolved around a claim by some parents and the school board that the provincial government denied their charter rights by systematically underfunding French-language schools, in particular their transport which impeded access to them.
“The Court has the opportunity to clarify what is meant by real equivalence. There is legal vagueness on how to apply section 23 [on minority language education] of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and much discussion and disagreement as to, for example, whether a certain number of students justifies or not to have a gymnasium, a science laboratory… The judgment of tomorrow can allow governments and school boards to settle their disputes more quickly,” explained CSF attorney Mark Power to ONFR+, a francophone media outlet, before the decision.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented that he thought “the Supreme Court decision was good news for minority-language communities right across the country who’ve long felt that they haven’t been receiving the right level of services from their provincial governments.”
“We now hope that the provincial governments will step up further in areas that are their exclusive jurisdictions, like education and certain services for minority-language communities. As a federal government, we will always stand ready to support and help minority-language communities across this country.” Trudeau concluded.
To comply with the ruling, new French-medium schools will need to be founded in British Columbia, where over 60,000 speak French as their primary language, according to 2016 data— up 21% since 2006.
The Canadian constitution guarantees the right to publicly funded K-12 English education in Québec, and publicly funded K-12 French-language education elsewhere in Canada wherever there are enough people who want it.