11/01/2012 06:03 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Inadequate schools for francophone students in Vancouver's west side: court

VANCOUVER - The rights of francophone students in Vancouver's west side have been violated because the lone, overcrowded French elementary school in the area is inferior to nearby English-speaking schools, a B.C. judge has ruled in a case that could have implications throughout the province.

A B.C. Supreme Court judgment, released Thursday, says the disparity violates the minority language rights enshrined in the charter, but it does not spell out just what should be done to correct the imbalance. The ruling could influence a larger case involving 14 other francophone schools across B.C. that has yet to be heard.

The case was launched in the spring of 2010 by a group of parents living in Vancouver's west side. The area's francophone students are served by one elementary school, l'école Rose-des-vents, which is physically connected to the area's only francophone secondary school, l’école secondaire Jules Verne.

The parents argued the facility is inadequate for the roughly 350 elementary level students that attend, and they said the school's conditions have caused some francophone parents to withdraw their children and prompted others not to enrol in the first place.

The list of complaints is long.

The overcrowding forces young elementary students to mix with the older secondary school students. The elementary school students share the secondary school's washroom, workshop and music room. At least two classrooms have no windows. In one classroom, students must walk outside to access the washroom. The library is too small.

The B.C. government pleaded poverty, arguing it must balance the needs of schools throughout the province with scarce resources. The court rejected that argument, concluding economic considerations should not trump minority rights.

"I am satisfied, weighing all the evidence of the facilities made available to francophone students in comparison with the facilities made available to anglophone students, that the former are not equivalent to the latter," wrote Judge Peter Willcock in a lengthy judgment posted to the court's website.

"I have weighed the evidence adduced by counsel for the minister with respect to the need of many school districts and the competition for scarce resources. It is important, however, to bear in mind ... the Constitution was intended to avoid subverting rights to economic policy."

Willcock said there is evidence to suggest there are between 700 and 1,000 elementary-aged francophone students in the area that have the charter-protected right to French education.

The province's public francophone school board, Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique, was named as a defendant in the case, but the board ultimately sided with parents, agreeing the school is inadequate and blaming a lack of provincial government funding.

Board president Alexandra Greenhill said in an interview that the only way to fix the problems in Vancouver is for the provincial government to come up with the money for at least two new elementary schools.

The board has also launched a separate lawsuit against the province, arguing a combination of government policies and poor funding is hurting francophone schools across the province. The case involves alleged inadequacies at 15 schools, including l’école Rose-des-ven in Vancouver's west side.

Greenhill, who has two children at l’école Rose-des-vents, said she hopes this week's court ruling bolsters the board's case in its own lawsuit.

"As a parent, I've lived all of this, so it's a great day for us," said Greenhill.

"It's all about kids. Whenever we talk about numbers, people seem to forget that ultimately it's children who are affected."

A spokesman for the province's Education Ministry, Scott Sutherland, could not say what this week's judgment will mean for francophone children in Vancouver or elsewhere in the province.

"The government has received the decision and is in the process of reviewing that decision," Sutherland said in an interview.

The Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique operates 37 schools across B.C. that together educate 4,800 students.

The board's schools are aimed at francophone students and are different than French immersion schools, which are operated by English school boards and are primarily intended for anglophone students.

Parents can enrol their children in schools operated by the board if the parents' first language is French, if the parents were educated at a francophone school or if their children have already been educated at a francophone school.

Last year, a court in the Yukon ruled on a similar case, ordering the territory to build a new Francophone school in Whitehorse and ordering the territorial government to restore $2 million in funding for French-language programs.

The territory immediately announced plans to appeal that decision.