Anger, heckling mark Moncton consultation effort on proposed changes to French immersion

Eva Dickson from Sackville brought signs made by her two daughters, who are upset about the proposed changes to French immersion in the province. (Maeve McFadden/CBC - image credit)
Eva Dickson from Sackville brought signs made by her two daughters, who are upset about the proposed changes to French immersion in the province. (Maeve McFadden/CBC - image credit)

Tempers and emotions flared almost from the start Thursday night at a public consultation in Moncton on the plan to change French-language education in New Brunswick.

It was the third consultation put on by the Department of Education to discuss what it calls the "innovative immersion program."

Organizers were unprepared for the large crowd. They'd expected about 135 people, but more than 300 lined up at a downtown hotel to take part.

Hotel staff scrambled to extend the size of the ballroom where the consultation was to happen, delaying the start by almost an hour.

Staff with the Department of Education had planned to use world café format for the event.

Participants were seated at tables of eight with the goal of encouraging constructive dialogue on the plan to replace French immersion starting in September and instead have students spend half their days in "exploratory learning" in French.

This format was soon abandoned.

Maeve McFadden/CBC
Maeve McFadden/CBC

Education Minister Bill Hogan started the evening by welcoming the attendees, but people immediately heckled him.

"Here's how tonight's going to work," Hogan responded. "We can be respectful and follow the process or we just shut it off right now. You choose."

One participant yelled at Hogan, "You're not the principal here."

The minister was interrupted repeatedly as he continued to explain the purpose of the consultation.

"I'm not going to argue with you," he said. "I'm not going to debate for airtime. If you don't want to listen to me, that's fine."

Despite the interruptions, Hogan continued to tell the crowd  he respected their opinions. He explained the goal of the consultation was to hear what people like and don't like about the proposed changes and what changes they would suggest.

"It's a framework, so based on the feedback we get from across the province, will help us develop what the program will actually look like," Hogan said.

Government of New Brunswick/YouTube
Government of New Brunswick/YouTube

Deputy Minister John McLaughlin was invited to give an overview of the proposed model. He explained the feedback from the public will be used to provide the minister with advice on what is in "the best interest of the province."

"I can sense in this room there's great disagreement with this model," he said. "But I also did wander around and spoke to some people who are very supportive of it."

McLaughlin was interrupted numerous times with comments and questions from the crowd, despite reminding them the session was not to be a question-and-answer format.

"I was really hoping this would be a more collegial kind of evening," he said to hecklers.

"We believe it's a good program. You may not agree. We want to hear from you in a respectful way but it's not like somebody's out there trying to ruin the lives of kids. We're trying to make it better."

Format scrapped

Despite trying to stick to the original format, organizers opted to open the microphones to anyone interested in making comments.

About 20 people spoke during the two-hour session, none in support of the proposed changes.

Hannah Davidson called the new model being proposed "flawed." The mother of two has been working as a French immersion teacher for 25 years.

She raised her concerns about the lack of French-speaking teachers to fill the new positions need for the proposed program.

Maeve McFadden/CBC
Maeve McFadden/CBC

Davidson also said the proposed model would not help the many students in the system who read below grade level and are now in the English program instead of French immersion.

"If we want to help these struggling readers," she said. " We should not expect them to spend 40 to 60 per cent of their day learning a second language as the new model proposes."

Kristin Cavoukian, a political scientist who moved to Moncton a year and a half ago from Ontario and is a member of the district education council, said her daughter is in the French immersion program.

She told McLaughlin that she read his report and she described it as "short on hard data and long on anecdote."

Cavoukian raised her concerns about the province's approach to making changes.

"It's not acceptable to have consultations after you have made a decision," she said, which was followed by loud applause and cheers from the crowd.

Maeve McFadden/CBC
Maeve McFadden/CBC

She said the district education council hears from parents who are "fuming mad" about the changes.

Cavoukian said some parents are deciding to leave New Brunswick because they say their children will have a better French immersion education elsewhere.

"My sincere advice to you", she continued "is to withdraw this proposal now."

There will be two more in-person public consultation sessions this month:

  • Jan. 24 at the Delta Saint John.

  • Jan. 25 at the Delta Fredericton.

Each will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

There will also be two virtual sessions – one on Jan. 31 and the other on February 2.

The online survey will continue to be available until Feb. 3.