Ottawa – December 9, 2023
In a landmark ruling on Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada declared that the Northwest Territories education minister made a mistake in denying admission to a French-language school for students from five families. The decision reached unanimously, overturned the minister’s refusal, and emphasized the importance of considering the preservation and development of minority language communities.
The children, whose parents initially sought their transfers in 2018 and 2019, were denied admission due to not meeting certain criteria, such as French not being their mother tongue or the language of their previous education. However, a francophone school board recommended their admission to help foster the French language.
The protracted legal battle ensued after the minister’s initial denial, with the Supreme Court’s decision highlighting the government’s obligation to consider the preservation and growth of minority language communities. Justice Suzanne Cote, who authored the decision, emphasized the significance of population growth in minority language communities, stating it ensures development and prevents decline.
Cote argued that admitting the children to the French school would have played a crucial role in averting “cultural erosion.” The court found fault with the minister’s emphasis on the cost of admitting students and noted a lack of due consideration for the children’s existing knowledge of French and their significant ties to the francophone community.
While the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories had initially sided with the parents and the school board, setting aside the minister’s decision, the territorial Court of Appeal later reinstated it. Friday’s final decision by the Supreme Court of Canada effectively overturned the appeal decision.
It is noteworthy that the affected children have either been admitted to the schools in question or no longer reside in the territory. The Northwest Territories government revealed in a statement that it admitted four students impacted by the court proceedings to French-language schools in October 2021. The government affirmed its commitment to supporting the French language by providing French first language education in the N.W.T. and ensuring equitable access to education for all students.