Members of north Edmonton's francophone community are calling for action on what they say is a lack of French public schools in the area.
Community members raised their concerns at a Black History Month celebration Thursday night at École À la Découverte at 113th Street and 109th Avenue.
It's the only public school in north Edmonton for children whose mother tongue is French.
Grade 6 student Rkan Akram Alishamie spends three hours on the bus to the Queen Mary Park-area each school day.
"Half of my sleep is on the bus," he said, highlighting how he wakes up early and gets home late.
"So when I reach the school, I don't feel like working. I feel like sleeping."
But Alishamie's commute to school will only get longer come September.
After he finishes Grade 6, he'll have to move to a new French school, even further south from his home.
'We don't have anything in the north'
Akram Shamie, president of the Societé et Conseil des Parents, said more French public schools need to be built in north Edmonton.
Shamie said a significant number of French speakers live in the quadrant bordered by 50th Street and 127th Street and St. Albert Trail and 137th Avenue. Many are new Canadians from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia.
The community has been advocating for a new school for more than a decade, he said. During that time, École À la Découverte was relocated three times.
"As a mainstream full-fledged French school, we don't have anything in the north," he said, highlighting how the École À la Découverte building belongs to the Edmonton public school board.
"We don't own anything."
French Catholic schools have been built in the area, but Shamie said parents should have a choice between a public and a Catholic school.
Education Minister David Eggen said he has heard the community's concerns, but can't make any promises for a new school.
"I can't speak to whether or not this project will be approved as we're currently in the budgeting process for budget 2018 right now," Eggen said in an email. "Our government is currently playing catch-up after years of neglect by the previous Conservative government."
He said he's pleased with the development of new Edmonton schools such as École Joseph Moreau.
"That said, we understand the need for many schools that were ignored for far too long and our government is doing our best to build as many as possible because our students deserve the best."
Edmonton's diversity at risk
Limited access to French schools has forced some families to move to other parts of the city, while others have committed to lengthy commutes from Edmonton's north, Shamie said.
"Families have to move from the north side to the south side in order to find a high school that they're satisfied with," said community advocate Ahmed Abdulkadir.
It's the provincial government's job to make sure that doesn't have to happen, he said.
"The province's responsibility is to provide schools in both languages — French and English. It is in the Constitution," Abdulkadir said. "So not having a school that these kids can go to, it is not fulfilling the promise that they had to the community."
As a result, he said the culture of the French-speaking community is at risk.
Abdulkadir said parents need to have the ability to help their kids learn in their mother tongue. Shamie agreed, adding the use of the French language contributes to Canada's diversity.
"The Canadian fabric is where that diversity is, and we're losing it," he said.
Shamie said building a new school would help preserve that culture.
"Otherwise, [students] have to go to French immersion, which they would lose their heritage and their language or their advantage to learn in their mother tongue."
New school under consideration
Robert Lessard, superintendent of the Conseil scolaire Centre-Nord, also known as the Greater North Central Francophone Education Region No. 2, said the board is looking into the community's request for a new French school.
"This is certainly one of the priorities we have in our capital plan," Lessard said, noting the proposal for a new school has been submitted to the province for review.
"They're open to it, but it's always the same issues, you know, funding and finances and all that. But I believe that they feel that we have a pretty strong case."
Lessard said the Elsinore and Matt Berry neighbourhoods have been identified as potential sites for a new school.
But some community members aren't interested in potential — they want concrete commitment from the school board and the provincial government.
"We don't want anyone to say they are looking into it," Abdulkadir said. "We want a commitment. We want a time period."