The Higgs government faced another angry, skeptical crowd Tuesday night as public consultations on its plan to replace French immersion in New Brunswick schools took place in Saint John.
More than 300 people turned out, and all 27 who spoke at the meeting denounced the proposal to implement a new program in time for this fall.
"It should go without saying that reducing French immersion by 50 per cent is not going to improve French," said parent Micah Peterson, who has five children in immersion now and two more he still hopes to enrol.
He said some of his own immersion classmates from his school years are now teaching immersion to his children.
"You think they're going to be able to do that when you cut it in half? It's ridiculous."
The immersion program works, and that is backed up with data, all caps. - Olivia Donovan
Retired teacher Olivia Donovan of Saint John, who now supervises student teachers for the University of New Brunswick, said the province should use its massive budget surpluses to tackle problems it claims the elimination of immersion will address.
"No. 1, it is never wise to axe one program that is working to fix one that is not," she said. "It is the English prime system that needs help. The immersion program works, and that is backed up with data, all caps."
The government announced in December that it will start phasing out French immersion in September, replacing it at the kindergarten and Grade 1 levels with a program that will see all students spend half their classroom time learning English and half learning French.
That is less French than the current immersion program but more French than what non-immersion students now get.
At last week's consultation in Moncton, an angry crowd forced Department of Education and Early Childhood Development officials to scrap their "world café" meeting format in favour of letting attendees speak at will.
In Saint John on Tuesday, the crowd also heckled organizers and called for an open-microphone session. The facilitators compromised by shortening the world café portion and letting anyone who wanted to speak do so.
The meeting was scheduled to end at 8:30 p.m. but continued until about 9:15 p.m., when no one was left at the microphones.
"I heard a lot of great comments tonight," Education Minister Bill Hogan told reporters. "I heard a lot of great concerns."
Hogan said the province's plan could still change.
"We're having consultations because nothing at this point is written in stone," he said. "If it was written in stone it would be silly to have consultations."
Reacting to criticism from one participant who had pointed out the government claims to be listening after already closing registration for French immersion this fall, Hogan told reporters even that could change.
"There's still lots of time if we were to choose to do Grade 1 French immersion next year. Like, it's only January. So there's tons of time should we choose that path."
Timeline moved up
Last October, Premier Blaine Higgs said the replacement for immersion had to start in September 2023 because it was unlikely a major change could happen in 2024, a provincial election year.
Hogan said he hopes for a final decision by late winter or early spring.
WATCH | Skeptical crowd voices their anger at public consultation:
Some speakers at the Saint John meeting said they were worried about how children with learning challenges and deaf children would cope with only half their classroom time devoted to learning to read in their first language.
Others said eliminating immersion would make it harder for anglophone school graduates to compete for the government jobs that require bilingualism.
Several teachers spoke at Tuesday's session, many of them referring to a New Brunswick Teachers Association email sent Monday that warned members to stick to "pedagogical issues" if they took part in the consultations.
Ryan Murphy, a teacher at St. Malachy's Memorial High School, said he was worried about the 10 per cent of his students whose first language is neither English nor French.
"They are learning English as they learn to code," he said. "They are learning English as they learn a new world.
"We must consider how these students … will be affected by having to learn two new languages. Will resource supports be duplicated for French? … Will that overwhelm the already overwhelmed?"
Besides Hogan, only two Progressive Conservative MLAs attended the consultation: Arlene Dunn, a cabinet minister and member for Saint John Harbour, and Andrea Anderson-Mason of Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West, who last week urged the government to "pump the brakes" on the plan.
A final in-person consultation is scheduled for Wednesday night in Fredericton, with two more virtual meetings planned for next week.