MONTREAL — New data on the number of Canadian children who have the constitutional right to education in an official minority language will help school boards plan and allow for further research, Statistics Canada said Wednesday.
The data, which comes from the 2021 census, shows that 304,000 children in Quebec have the right to attend regular English public schools and that 593,000 children outside the province have the right to attend regular French public schools.
The census found that nearly 70 per cent of eligible school-age children attend, or have attended, a regular public school in their official minority language.
It's the first time Statistics Canada has reported on how many people are eligible for official minority language instruction and how many take advantage of that eligibility.
Rodrigue Landry, a professor emeritus at the Université de Moncton and the former director of the Canadian Institute for Research on Linguistic Minorities, said minority language school boards have been eagerly awaiting the data.
"School boards especially are very interested in seeing these numbers because it will allow them to open schools where they are lacking facilities," said Landry, who expected the numbers would show more people are eligible than previous estimates have suggested.
Éric Caron Malenfant, assistant director of Statistics Canada's Centre for Demography, said the census data is the first step to creating a "data ecosystem" about minority language education in Canada. That will help school boards plan, and will also include the results of followup surveys and other research, he added.
The census found that Ontario has the largest number of children with French-language rights, 350,000, while New Brunswick has the largest proportion, 36 per cent of all children.
Canadian citizens whose first language is French or who attended a French-language primary school in Canada — not French immersion — have the right to sent their children to public French-language schools. Siblings of children educated in French in Canada can also attend French-language schools.
In Quebec, children can attend public English-language schools if their parents, or a sibling, attended English primary school in Canada. Children also have the right to continue their education in the language they started in if they move provinces.
New Brunswick also had the largest proportion of children attending an official minority language school — 80.6 per cent of eligible kids were at a French school — followed by Quebec, where 76.2 per cent of eligible children were attending English schools.
Alberta had the lowest percentage, 49.6 per cent. Across English Canada, 64.7 per cent of eligible school-aged children were attending French schools.
Landry said the data also illustrates where people with minority language rights live, which will help address the biggest issue that prevents people from accessing official language minority education — "the distance to the school and the lack of schools." He noted that he testified in a court case in Saskatchewan where the only French school available was about 100 kilometres away from the child's home, making access to that school almost impossible.
While Statistics Canada found that more than 90 per cent of eligible children were living within 15 kilometres of a minority official language school in 2021, Malenfant told reporters the distance to school is four times greater in rural areas than in urban areas and that the farther students live from a minority official language school, the less likely they are to attend.
Jean-Luc Racine, executive director of the Commission nationale des parents francophones, a group that promotes French-language education outside Quebec, said the new data will allow French school boards to respond the real needs of the communities they serve.
Racine said he believes French language schools are essential to ensuring the survival of francophone minority communities in Canada.
"It's clear that to ensure vitality it takes French schools — it takes enough French schools — to respond to the demand and it also takes good schools," he said in an interview.
While the census didn't look at the reasons people choose a minority official language school, Caron Malenfant said a followup study is ongoing.
That study will also look at the reasons children leave minority language education.
The census found that 23.8 per cent of eligible school-aged children in Quebec never attended an English-language school, while 22.8 per cent of eligible children in English Canada had never studied in French, either in a regular French-language program or in a French immersion program.
Heather Collins, a Montreal parent, said that while her two children have eligibility certificates allowing them to attend school in English, she and her husband ultimately decided to send them to a French school. She said she wants her kids, who are five and seven, to have a level of confidence in French that she's not sure they'll get from an English school.
"To us, it was more important that they know French to the best of their ability if we're going to stay here," she said in an interview. Because they speak English at home, she said, she's not worried about their English skills.
Linguistic factors aren't the only considerations for parents. Pemma Muzumdar of Montreal said she is leaning toward an English school for her son because the quality of education seems higher, with smaller class sizes.
"I want him to learn to speak and write in French, I want him to participate fully in French society," she said. "I think he's going to get enough English from me at home, but I am concerned about the quality of the (French) schools that are available to him."
Her four-year-old son has English-language rights in Quebec because she was educated at an English-language school in Ontario, and she said her family is deciding between a French immersion program in the English system or a French private school.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press