MARIANNE WHITE, Canwest News Service - The New Brunswick government's decision to axe the early French immersion program could hurt the reputation of Canada's only officially bilingual province and revive language tensions, many experts believe.
Premier Shawn Graham has decided to drop the program that currently begins in Grade 1 as well as mandatory French classes for anglophone children in favour of a more intensive French program for all students starting in Grade 5.
The decision has proven to be unpopular with many New Brunswick parents - francophones and anglophones alike - and also with teachers and university professors across the country.
While parents say the choice of early French immersion should be available, language experts stress that extensive research shows that the earlier children learn a new language the better.
But in recent days, the debate on education has shifted to a debate on language in a province where tensions between francophones and anglophones have lain dormant for years.
Fred Genesee, one of the country's leading language experts, thinks the eradication of early immersion delivers a mixed message to New Brunswickers.
"It does seem to send the message that even though French and English are both official languages, French isn't so important that anglophone children should start learning it early," said Genesee, a second-language researcher at McGill University.
Parents have loudly protested the cut and organized a province-wide demonstration last Thursday at the Fredericton legislature aimed at Graham and Education Minister Kelly Lamrock.
More than 400 parents and children came out to say it would be a disgrace for their province to scrap a program many believe offers the best opportunity for English-speaking children to learn French.
"My son is going to be a guinea pig for Mr. Lamrock's plan, a plan that is unproven and untested," Christina Taylor told reporters at the demonstration Thursday.
Parents like Taylor are also using the Internet to get their message across. Their groups on the social networking site Facebook - stressing that children in Alberta and Saskatchewan will have better access to French second language education than children in Canada's only bilingual province - have more than 8,000 members.
"I am proud to be fluent in both official languages of N.B. As early as the end of Grade 1, I was carrying on full conversations in French, and that was without the help of my English speaking parents," testified former student Michele Berry from Saint John.
"People everywhere should be fighting for this, whether you live in N.B. or not. If they get away with it there, it will only be a matter of time for the situation to spread across the country," wrote Jane Harris MacDonald from Halifax.
The decision is stirring up a lot of emotions in New Brunswick and Geoff Martin, a professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, fears this may put the current linguistic truce into jeopardy.
The last linguistic conflict in the province dates about 12 years, Martin recalled, when Meech Lake Accord negotiations were underway and anglophone rights groups rose in the province to oppose official bilingualism.
"The people who still have those views haven't said anything yet about the government's decision. But I suspect they will be very unhappy," said the professor who researches linguistic conflict in the province.
"This could backlash and lead to the revival of ethnic politics where people say 'Well maybe this whole bilingualism idea is not so good'," Martin stressed.
He added that the decision could also have an economic impact if some people decide to leave the prov-ince so their children can benefit from early French immersion classes in other provinces.
Four doctors in Saint John have threatened to move as a result of the government's decision, including one couple comprising the province's only pediatric urologist and a general practitioner.
A group of university professors from across the country believe the New Brunswick government has made a huge mistake and taken a step backwards. In a letter sent to Lamrock, the Consortium of Universities Advising the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers urged the government to reconsider its decision.
The Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers agrees with them and thinks the decision is sending the message that New Brunswick's model of bilingualism is slipping away.
Former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord also came out to condemn his successor's decision and insisted the government is ripping away the rights of parents to choose what is best for their children.
But despite the pressure, the government has remained unmoved by the protests. The education minister has stressed that French starting at Grade 5 for all students is the best way to get more bilingual graduates.
The slashed early immersion program was voluntary and reached about 20 per cent of the province's children. New Brunswick wants to have 70 per cent of its high school students fluent in French upon graduation.
"If you want 70 per cent of kids to be bilingual, you can't just teach (French) to 20 per cent," Lamrock told protesters last week. "You have to include all of them. If you don't want to be last in reading, writing, math or science, then take a look at what got you there."
But many second language experts stress that early immersion is inarguably the most effective way to teach children a second language and the solution that delivers the best results.
"That is a real loss for New Brunswick children," added Helene Deacon, a language and literacy professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Refuelling the language debate
New Brunswick's decision to scrap early French immersion is proving divisive