Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is creating a quiet revolution in the Toronto school system.
 
Thirty years on, it seems Torontonians are finally twigging to the implications of Section 23, the bit that guarantees parents the right, under certain conditions, to educate their children in French.

According to the Charter, if your first language is French, or if you were educated in French, your children have the right to French education. This applies to people born in Canada, as well as immigrants from the approximately 50 countries where French is an official language. And according to an executive at the French Catholic system in Toronto, admission in his system is extended further through a “grandfather” clause, which allows any child with a French-speaking or French-educated grandparent to register, as well.

In a country with about seven million native French speakers, whose population growth is increasingly dependent on immigration, and in a city like Toronto that acts as a magnet for both domestic and international migration, that accounts for a lot of kids.
 
The French classes mandated in the English school system are mostly lamentable. French immersion has become enormously competitive, with far fewer spots than kids. But a spot in a French immersion program is not guaranteed by the Charter. Wholesale French education is.

So when a school in Toronto’s public or Catholic French school boards gets crowded, it doesn’t turn students way or get ludicrously selective, it expands. The Catholic school board, the Conseil scolaire de district catholique Centre-Sud (CSDCCS) has grown by more than 10 per cent over the last four years. The public system, the Conseil Scolaire Viamonde, by 23 per cent. Because land zoned for schools is at a premium in the GTA, expansion has in the past meant crowded classrooms and portables. But ever since 2006, when the Ministry of Education has its Pupil Accommodation Review, which forced the English system to consolidate its students, shutter sparsely populated schools and offer those schools up to other boards before they could put them on the open market, the French systems have been positively blossoming.
 
“We’re building a new elementary school is Scarborough,” says Rejean Sirois, the director of education for the Catholic system, “and we’re also building a new school northwest of the 401 to replace an existing school.” The growth is impressive. They’re also expanding two elementary schools that are over-crowded, have received funding to buy a school in Etobicoke (formerly known as Richview), have already bought the former Essex public school near Christie Pits and have a new high school at the corner of Eglinton and Markham Road. The public system has five new schools in the works, including the school formerly known as West Toronto Collegiate, a three-storey, 1,000-student school they’re renovating jointly with the Catholic board. On Lansdowne between College and Bloor, the as yet un-named school is in the heart of Dufferin Grove, and will open up some much needed spots in the downtown core.
 
“Every time we open a school, like the École Mosaique three years ago, people just show up,” says Gyslaine Hunter-Perrault, the education director at Viamonde. She says it’s a classic built-it-and-they-come model. There aren’t huge waiting lists for existing schools. Even parents who qualify to have their kids educated in French tend to value proximity over all else, and will enroll their kids in the English system rather than subject them to a 45-minute commute. “It’s a bit like a chicken and egg thing,” she says. “People aren’t waiting on the sidewalk, but when we open one, people come from all over to register.” When the public system, which covers everything from Windsor to Penetanguishene, started up in 1998, there were 21 schools. Now there are 41, all of them full.
 
Bilingualism has been in the background of Canadian history and culture at least as far back as Baldwin and Lafontaine, but it’s mostly been a failure. In most of Canada, French education produces little more than an ability to pronounce “Québec” slightly better than an American. In Québec itself, English is in as sorry a state as French is elsewhere. With the exception of New Brunswick, the nation’s only officially bilingual province, bilingualism is still more ideal than reality. But the promise of a flourishing Toronto French system is extraordinary.
 
“All our students when they graduate are fully bilingual,” Sirois says. Not only do the schools employ only native French speakers, everything from assemblies to sports are conducted in French. Because English remains the primary language outside of school, both French boards are able to teach English, beginning in grade four, at a level that far surpasses the English systems’ ability to teach French. By high school, the English courses the French students take are the same ones their English counterparts are taking, complete with Shakespeare and Robertson Davies.
 
The Charter provision has ensured that the growth of such systems is potentially geometric, with every child admitted to the system automatically qualifying their future children for eventual admission. It’s the same in the rest of Anglo Canada as well, of course, but for the most part, the parental enthusiasm has not been there, and those with Section 23 rights have largely abdicated them in favour of English assimilation. But Toronto seems to have started to buck the trend. Though both French systems extend beyond its borders, the GTA accounts for the fastest growth. And with Haitians, West Africans, Egyptians and Lebanese, not to mention French Canadians, all taking advantage of their rights to French education in the middle of an Anglophone city, it may only take a couple of generations for Toronto to become a true encapsulation of the Canadian ideal.

Bert Archer is the development editor of Yonge Street.

Originally published on Yonge Street on Feb. 22, 2012.