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GNWT lawyer: ‘Close call’ over francophone school facilities

A lawyer who represented the territorial government in its successful legal battle over francophone school facilities admits the victory was a “constitutional close call”.

Last week, the NWT Court of Appeal announced the GNWT had won its appeal against a 2012 ruling forcing it to provide additional facilities for francophone schools in Yellowknife and Hay River.

The appeal court found that numbers of eligible students in Hay River had been mistakenly inflated, and ruled that extra facilities at Yellowknife’s École Allain St-Cyr (pictured) were desirable but not legally obligatory.

“In the case of Yellowknife it was much more of a constitutional close call. That’s a fair assessment. The issues were a lot murkier in Yellowknife than in Hay River,” said Maxime Faille, who represented the GNWT in court.

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In the wake of the appeal court’s verdict, the francophone school board and parents’ association said they were considering taking their case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court hears only cases of national importance, or which will decided important points of law.

Faille is not convinced the court will deem this dispute over facilities worthy of its time.

“These are important issues but, at the same time, the Supreme Court of Canada did hear a not-dissimilar case coming out of British Columbia last month, and is hearing a not-dissimilar case next week coming out of the Yukon. Whether they’re going to delve into this one is anyone’s guess,” he said.

“Governments are entitled to confine the funding of minority-language education to those specifically protected under the constitution. It seems to us the constitution is very clear in that regard, and we’re very confident that this is the correct legal conclusion.”

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Earlier, Roger Lepage – lawyer for the francophone school board and parents’ association – voiced the opposite view.

“We’re satisfied that if this matter went to the Supreme Court of Canada, they would likely hear it and the francophone communities would likely be successful,” said Lepage on Monday.

Faille admitted that last week’s verdict, while broadly favouring the GNWT, did oblige the territorial government to take some steps toward improving francophone facilities in Yellowknife.

“École Allain St-Cyr lacks an adequate gymnasium space, so that will have to be addressed in some fashion or another by the GNWT,” said Faille.

“And, with respect to certain other facilities, the government will have to provide those in-school or ensure there is access to facilities in other schools. [But the government] has done quite a bit for a relatively small francophone community in the territory. It’s never been a matter of not supporting that principle with real dollars and bricks-and-mortar buildings.

“The fact that some people aren’t happy with the extent of facilities is hardly surprising. The Court of Appeal alludes to this – probably everyone wishes their child’s school had more facilities, was bigger, wasn’t as crowded as it was, and so on. That’s an understandable desire for people to have.”

The school board and parents’ association now have two months in which to decide whether to pursue a potential Supreme Court hearing.

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