A Kelowna couple claim their child is being denied a constitutional right to access a French Immersion education in the Central Okanagan.
Randy and Susan Kootnekoff are suing both the Central Okanagan School District (SD23) and board of education to quash decisions by both board chair Moyra Baxter and the board denying their child school bus transportation because the child was enrolled in French Immersion.
While the suit, filed last week in Kelowna Supreme Court, details earlier issues concerning other family children and the school district involving the French Immersion program, the Kootenkoffs are seeking damages pertaining specifically to the decision to deny an older child busing to and from school.
The court filing states some pre-existing routes carrying French Immersion students were recommended for elimination, which the board did approve in March of 2020. The district at the time said it had a shortfall of $3.1 million within its busing program.
“Nowhere is it evident that the trustees had complete, or reliable information before them or considered the impact on families of terminating these bus routes,” the suit claims.
“However, they were quick to eliminate certain bus routes carrying French Immersion students, the trustees approved other school bus routes carrying French Immersion students, notably in West Kelowna.”
They say their child was denied busing for the 2020-2021 school year because “the student was studying French Immersion.”
SD23 policy states French Immersion is an elective, optional program, so it will only provide transportation to French Immersion students in the event a route has open seats not taken by regular students.
The suit says the Kootnekoffs were again denied for the 2021-2022 school year and, when they tried to appeal, were told transportation decision could not be appealed, but they could make a presentation to the board.
During a presentation to the board, they claimed the district had the ability to find cost savings in other areas “in order to protect a constitutional right,” further stating that “French Immersion is protected by Section 23(2) of the Charter.
That section states: “Citizens of Canada of whom any child has received or is receiving primary or secondary school instruction in English or French in Canada, have the right to have all their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the same language.“
The government and B.C. school districts have, however, only recognized Francophone schools—not French Immersion programs—as Charter protected. Francophone schools deliver the entirety of their education in French, whereas immersion programs are meant to educate students in a language that is not their mother tongue.
Susan Kootnekoff is a lawyer by trade and has written about the issue in the past. If she succeeds in her lawsuit by getting the courts to fully recognize French Immersion as Charter protected, it would be a massive precedent.
In 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with B.C.’s sole French-language school board and awarded $6 million in damages for underfunding the system. A Kootnekoff victory would force school districts to widely increase access to French Immersion programs.
The Kootnekoff lawsuit alleges board chair Baxter made statements to the effect that the district could cancel the French Immersion program and “get rid of French Immersion altogether,” leaving the impression the threat could be realized if they pursued the transportation concerns.
The suit further claims the Kootnekoffs child was again denied transportation for the 2022-2023 school year and, in an email from the district, were told, “your child will not be eligible for busing to (the French Immersion catchment school). As per policy 470r, we only provide transportation to English catchment schools, which is Canyon Falls middle school for your address.”
A further appeal of that decision has since been denied, according to the suit.
Allegations made in the suit have not yet been tested in a court of law.
The school district and the board have 21 days in which to respond to the allegations.