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Parent group welcomes N.B. premier statement that French immersion reform uncertain

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FREDERICTON -

A New Brunswick parent group is welcoming a statement by the premier that the government's proposed reform to the French immersion program in schools "was never a sure thing."

Chris Collins, executive director for the New Brunswick chapter of Canadian Parents for French, said it is encouraging to see Premier Blaine Higgs soften his stance.

"We're very encouraged by it, but we're not popping the champagne corks at this point," Collins said Wednesday night.

"The people in New Brunswick have spoken very clearly on this, and they want the government of New Brunswick to back down. And we hope that happens in the next little while."

Higgs told reporters Wednesday his government's plans to reform French immersion weren't concrete and that he would make a decision based on recommendations from the Education Department. The proposed changes are to be implemented in the fall and would see kindergarten and elementary students spend half the day learning in French -- down from the current 90 per cent of the day.

"It never was a sure thing," Higgs said. "If it was, there wouldn't have been much point in having consultations. It was a proposal to say 'is there another way that we can actually achieve better success?"'

The government has said the goal of its reforms is to ensure all graduates in the anglophone sector have at least a "conversational level" of French. The province prides itself on being the only officially bilingual province in Canada but has lamented how most of its anglophone graduates can't speak French.

The government recently held a series of public consultations on its proposed changes, including one meeting last month in the capital during which almost all who spoke out criticized the plan.

At the public consultation session in Fredericton, Education Minister Bill Hogan said the government would gather data and make recommendations, which would be shared "as soon as we can."

Higgs said Wednesday he was looking forward to the recommendations. "We heard lots of comments. Lots of information was shared and I think the minister and deputy and the department are evaluating all that now."

"I haven't had a final proposal or a suggestion of next steps. The minister and I, and department folks, will meet on that and obviously there will be likely further discussions amongst the cabinet and caucus and then we'll decide based on the recommendations."

Collins said French immersion in the province can be improved by attracting more teachers, which he said would make the program available to more students.

One of the parents at the Fredericton consultations said he was worried the government would claim a silent majority was in favour of changing French immersion -- despite the vocal opposition. Hogan, after the session, did not answer reporters' questions about what proportion of residents he thought were in favour of the new program.

Collins said it would be "political suicide" if the government continued with its proposed French immersion model.

"There is no silent majority here. This is just plain clarity of expression," he said. "The people of New Brunswick want to keep French immersion just like they have in all other provinces in Canada."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.

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