Dispersed Minorities and Segmental Autonomy:
French-Language School Boards in Canada



An ethnic minority is more likely to gain political autonomy if it is geographically concentrated; such autonomy is rare when the minority is territorially dispersed.  This article examines Canada's recent experience in granting segmental autonomy to its dispersed French-speaking minority.  After more than a century of majority rule in the field of education, most Canadian provinces have only now established French-language school boards responsible for administering minority schools.  The adoption of this new policy was unexpected; its implementation was achieved with great difficulty.  The province of Alberta, where French-language school boards were established in 1994, serves as an instructive case study of the implementation, the organization and the structure of segmental autonomy in education.


The difficulty in governing a society characterized by separate and self-contained ethnic groups has been widely acknowledged.  Gabriel Almond, in his classic typology of comparative political systems, asserted that all fragmented societies were likely to be unstable.[1]  A fragmented society was defined by its multiple political cultures, rather than by multiple ethnic groups; nevertheless, the proposition has been frequently generalized to encompass any plural society regardless of the dividing cleavage.  Ethnic divisions have proved to be a particularly durable cleavage, refusing to dissipate with political development and with functional modernization as Rokkan once predicted so convincingly.[2]

            While recognizing the dangers posed by deep social divisions and conflicting ethnic loyalties, Lijphart has proposed a model of political governance that holds out the promise of democratic stability.[3]  In Lijphart's view, majoritarian and adversarial governments stimulate violence and disintegration in plural societies, while coalescent and consociational governments contribute to both democracy and unity.  The defining characteristics of consociational government are grand coalition, mutual veto, proportionality and segmental autonomy.

            Segmental autonomy means minority rule, not in all domains, but in the area of the minority's exclusive concern.  While matters of mutual concern are to be resolved by joint agreement reached through the mechanisms of coalition, veto and proportionality, matters of particular concern are to be resolved by delegating authority to the individual segments.  In this way, segmental autonomy removes sensitive and potentially destabilizing issues from the larger political arena.  It reduces the likelihood that such issues will be subject to inter-ethnic competition.  Further, although this is often left unsaid, such autonomy is likely to provide a just guarantee of minority rights.  Important minority concerns will not be left to the discretion of an unsympathetic majority.

            The separation and isolation of the various segmental groups have been deemed an important condition of consociational government.[4]  Clear boundaries have the advantage of limiting contact between such groups and thereby reduce the possibilities for conflict.  Leaders become the chief bridge between the segments and the possibility of elite cooperation is enhanced.  These boundaries are maintained by separate political and social institutions or by territorial segregation.

            Territorial segregation, in particular, facilitates segmental autonomy.  In Belgium, for example, the geographic separation of the official language communities has contributed significantly to the recent creation of a federal state, where each community has responsibility for educational, cultural, linguistic and personalizable matters within its language region.[5]  In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, the territorial mixing of the two religious groups has undermined consociational strategies, and particularly efforts to increase minority autonomy.  Catholics very seldom constitute regional majorities and they have had great difficulty gaining political control in local affairs.[6]

            Education is almost inevitably an issue of particular concern to ethnic minorities, not the least because of its intrinsic links to such crucial areas as language, culture and religion.  A 1982 amendment to the Canadian constitution, and subsequent jurisprudence, has guaranteed official language minorities substantial control over their schools.  This guarantee has had particularly significant consequences for Canada's dispersed French-speaking minority.

            This article will examine the evolution of the minority education question and the recent establishment of French-language school boards, with particular emphasis on those Canadian provinces, notably Alberta, where French-speakers constitute a dispersed minority.  It is suggested that these school boards provide an instructive example of segmental autonomy.


Dispersed Minorities

Taken as a whole, Canada's French-speaking minority is not dispersed but concentrated: 87.5 per cent live in census divisions where they are a majority (see Table 1).  This situation may be attributed to the fact that 84.5 per cent of Canada's French-speakers live in one province--the province of Quebec--where they constitute a substantial, and ever-increasing, majority of the population.  According to the most recent census, in 1991, French-speakers make up 83.3 per cent of Quebec's population; and virtually all (99.9 per cent) of Quebec's French-speakers live in census divisions where they are a majority.  In 1837, French-speakers made up 72 per cent of Quebec's population; in 1871, 78 per cent and, in 1931, 79 per cent.[7]

            In the other nine Canadian provinces, however, French-speakers are a relatively small minority and their proportions have steadily declined.  While in 1951 French-speakers made up 7.3 per cent of the population of Canada, excluding Quebec, by 1986 they numbered only 5.0 per cent of this population.[8]  The decline was particularly marked in the most English-speaking regions of the country where the proportion of French-speakers decreased during the same period from 3.4 per cent to 2.4 per cent.

            In each of these nine provinces, except New Brunswick, the minority is also territorially dispersed.  This dispersion may be measured by calculating the level of minoritization in Canada's 290 census divisions (see Table 1).  It should be noted, however, that this measure is influenced by the size of the census divisions.  In New Brunswick, for example, where there are 15 divisions, the resulting calculations show that 63.4 per cent of the French-speakers live in areas where they constitute a majority.  However, a somewhat different measure, based on the smallest unit available, the province's 277 census subdivisions, has previously shown that 74.3 per cent of the French population live in areas where they are a majority.[9]  If smaller census units were used for other provinces, our measurements would similarly show a somewhat greater concentration of the minority population.




Distribution by Proportion



In Census Division



















British Columbia




































New Brunswick






Prince Edward Is






Nova Scotia


















Note. The French-speaking population is defined to include all those who claimed French as their mother tongue.  It includes, for example, those who claimed French as their sole mother tongue (95.7%) and those who claimed it as only one of two or more mother tongues (4.3%).  The latter situation is most common in those regions, such as western Canada, where French-speakers are a dispersed minority.
    There are a total of 290 census divisions in Canada, including 30 in British Columbia, 19 in Alberta, 18 in Saskatchewan, 23 in Manitoba, 49 in Ontario, 99 in Quebec, 15 in New Brunswick, 3 in Prince Edward Island, 18 in Nova Scotia, 10 in Newfoundland, 5 in the Northwest Territories and 1 in the Yukon Territory.

Source.  Calculated from: Canada, Statistics Canada, Profile of Census Divisions and Subdivisions, 13 vols (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1992).

            For some purposes, the absolute number of French-speakers in a region is more relevant than the proportional number.  The granting of regional autonomy, particularly in educational services, for example, often depends on the existence of a sufficient number of clients.  Canadian legislation frequently limits the provision of minority services to areas ‘where numbers warrant.’ Figure 1 shows the regional dispersion of French-speakers (and English-speakers in Quebec) based on the absolute number in each census subdivision.  It confirms our earlier observation that French-speakers are generally dispersed throughout the country, although there are important regional variations.  In New Brunswick, the French-speaking minority is relatively concentrated; in Alberta and Saskatchewan, however, it is much more widely scattered.


Note. This map shows the distribution of English-speakers in Quebec, and French-speakers outside Quebec.  Each dot is equal to 100 persons.

Source. Adapted from: Canada, Department of the Secretary of State, Annual Report by the Secretary of State on his mandate with respect to official languages, 1988-1989 (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1989), p. 86.

            If each of Canada's ten provinces are treated as individual cases, and a measure of minoritization is used to evaluate dispersion, then it may be concluded that French-speakers are generally a dispersed minority.  Quebec and New Brunswick are the only exceptions to this conclusion.  In both these provinces French-speakers constitute local majorities.  Indeed, as noted earlier, Quebec's French-speakers are also a provincial majority and, for this reason, the Quebec case will not be examined here.  On the other hand, the New Brunswick case will be retained for reasons of comparison; it provides an example of a regionally-concentrated minority.

Majority Rule

Education is a provincial responsibility under the Canadian constitution and, until 1982, no guarantees existed for French-language schooling.  Section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 protected denominational schools, both Protestant and Catholic, in provinces where these schools already enjoyed legal rights at the time of union.  Insofar as French-speakers were also Catholics, they thereby benefited from partial protection, at least in some parts of the country.  This protection was not needed in Quebec, of course, where they enjoyed majority status.  Since the federal system recognized provincial autonomy in education, French-speaking Quebecers were ultimately assured that they would control their own school systems.

            Elsewhere, in the decades following Confederation, French-speakers were a minority and subject to the dictates of an English-speaking Protestant majority.  This majority lashed out against both French-language and Catholic schools wherever these were perceived as sufficiently important to warrant attention: English was imposed as the only language of instruction.  Majority rule thus worked against the French-language minority.  Minority rights were often suppressed.  Stormy conflicts were the usual result.

            In New Brunswick, the provincial government adopted the Common Schools Act in 1871 and thereby imposed universal, non-denominational and, in effect, English-language education, financed from public funds.  Denominational schools were excluded from such funding and Catholics withheld their school taxes in protest.  The government took a hard line against this opposition, confiscating private property to meet unpaid taxes.  This policy garnered majority support and in 1874 the government was re-elected on the platform of `Vote for the Queen against the Pope.'  The resulting polarization, however, lead to an outbreak of rioting in the French-speaking village of Caraquet, following a contested school meeting.[10]  Two people were killed.

            The riots shocked the province and the Protestant government immediately initiated negotiations with the Catholic opposition, derisively referred to as the `French Brigade.'  The negotiations were secret and the resulting compromise was concealed from the public for some eighteen years.  The most significant long-term consequence of the riots was a complete reversal in political behaviour, from majority rule to overarching cooperation. Subsequent cabinets were coalitions between English and French, Protestants and Catholics, Liberals and Conservatives.[11]  Various cooperative strategies were introduced, including depolitization, proportionality and compromise.

            A particularly important element in the new compromise was the authorization to communicate and study in the French language in elementary schools.[12]  English, however, remained the primary language of instruction.  The success of this agreement was due, in no small part, to the regional isolation of the French-speaking community of the time.  Religious and language concessions could be implemented with little effect on the English-speaking Protestant majority and, often, without its knowledge.  Further, because of their territorial concentration, the French could easily exercise some local control in school and municipal affairs.  In 1967, when the educational system was completely overhauled as part of the Equal Opportunity Programme, there were some 422 school districts in the province, each with financial and administrative autonomy.

            In western Canada, the demographic balance that had existed between the English- and the French-speaking populations at the time of Confederation was upset by a wave of immigration from Ontario during the 1880s.  By 1901, French-speakers constituted only six per cent of the population of the future province of Alberta and seven per cent of the population of Manitoba.  In both cases, majority rule meant an end to minority rights.

            In Manitoba, the legislative assembly passed an Official Language Act in 1890 imposing English as the only language of the assembly and the courts, thereby cancelling the official status of French.  The same year, the legislature voted a Public Schools Act that established a system of non-denominational schools under the direction of a provincial advisory board.  Denominational schools were not entitled to public funding while, within the public system, instruction in French and the teaching of religion were prohibited by the advisory board.[13]  The establishment of a non-denominational English-language system met with vigorous protests from the French-speaking Catholic minority.  A temporary compromise was negotiated between the federal and provincial governments in 1896 permitting religious instruction and the use of French where numbers warranted.  These provisions were repealed in 1916, however.

            In the Northwest Territories, the legislative assembly similarly adopted a resolution in 1892 declaring English to be the sole language of its proceedings and records.  The same year, the School Ordinance was amended to establish English as the only language of instruction.[14]  A subsequent modification allowed for the teaching of a primary course in the French language, if this instruction was limited to one hour per day and if the parents were willing to pay a special rate.  These provisions were carried over into the newly-created provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905.  English continued to be the only language of instruction permitted in the schools of these provinces, with minor exceptions, until 1968.

            In Ontario, the province with the largest French-speaking minority, the School Act originally made no provision for the language of instruction.  French-language instruction was tolerated in publicly-funded schools until at least 1889.  This tolerance was apparently based on the assumption that the assimilation of Ontario's French-speakers was inevitable in such an English-speaking province, and that it could best be achieved voluntarily, without coercive measures.[15]  Nevertheless, when the French-speaking population showed no sign of waning, sterner measures were deemed necessary.  In 1885 new regulations imposed the use of English (for a minimum of two hours in the lower grades and four hours in the upper grades) and also required that every teaching candidate pass examinations in English grammar.  In 1889 further regulations removed all French-language textbooks from the list of authorized books.  A more draconian measure was adopted in 1912 when Regulation 17 prohibited the use of French as a language of instruction.  This regulation was actively resisted, and even defied, by many Franco-Ontarians; indeed, some French-language elementary schools continued to operate within the separate school system.  The regulation was repealed in 1927.

            Historically, then, majority rule has not worked to the advantage of Canada's dispersed French-speaking minority.  Wherever French-speakers were found in significant numbers, the provincial governments intervened to prohibit the use of French as a language of instruction.  New Brunswick is the major exception to this trend.  However, in that province, the French-speaking population was territorially concentrated and the government adopted a consociational strategy.

Segmental Autonomy

In this context, the introduction of segmental autonomy in French-language education appears as an unexpected and unusual development.  Except in New Brunswick, this autonomy may be traced in large measure to the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a part of the Constitution Act, 1982.  This charter provided for minority-language educational rights; it was not immediately apparent that these rights also included the management and control of minority schools.

            The modern roots of the movement to establish French-language schooling may be found in the report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.[16]  This commission of inquiry was appointed in 1963 in response to growing political unrest in Quebec: an ever-increasing number of French-speakers demanded greater protection for their language and greater autonomy for their province.  André Laurendeau, editor-in-chief of the influential Montreal daily newspaper Le Devoir, was the first to express the need for such a commission, and he was subsequently appointed its co-chairman.

            In its 1968 volume on education, the commission recommended that the official-language minority be guaranteed its owns schools in districts where it constituted ten per cent or more of the population and in urban centres where the number of eligible students made it practicable.[17]  Significantly, however, no recommendation was made for autonomous minority-language school boards.  On the contrary, where there were French and English schools in a district, these would be under the jurisdiction of the same school board.  It was, however, suggested that this board include representatives of each language group.

            Although the recommendations of the federal commission were in no way binding, they were to have considerable influence on public opinion and government policy.  Pierre Trudeau, prime minister of Canada between 1968 and 1984, was eager to expand French-language services throughout Canada, rather than to devolve greater political autonomy to Quebec.  By strengthening the French-speaking presence outside Quebec, Trudeau hoped to successfully combat separatist sentiments within Quebec:  French-speaking nationalists might thereby be induced to identify with Canada, rather than with Quebec.  The Canadian government, rather than the Quebec government, could then claim to be most appropriate spokesman for the country's French-speakers.[18]   Thus, the political dissatisfaction expressed by Quebecers provided the impetus for increased services to French-speakers living outside Quebec.  In 1968, Trudeau's government adopted its first Official Languages Act, granting official status to both English and French and promising bilingual services in districts throughout Canada where there was sufficient demand.

            New Brunswick was the first province to respond in a substantial way to the commission's recommendations when it adopted its own Official Languages Act in 1969.  Section 12 of this act, as proclaimed in 1976, required that instruction in the province's schools be in the mother tongue of the pupil: English instruction for English pupils and French instruction for French pupils.  In 1981, however, New Brunswick went even further by amending section 3.1 of the Schools Act to provide for the organization of both schools and school districts on the basis of official language.  Because of the geographic concentration of the two language groups, this language-based structure was largely compatible with a traditional territory-based administration.  In one area, however, the bilingual Moncton region, a French-language district and an English-language district occupied the same territory.

            This act also provided for the creation of minority school boards in regions where the population density was too low to justify the creation of a second district.  For example, an English-language minority board was created to administer a single school in the French-language district of Edmundston.  There are now a total of six French-language majority school boards in New Brunswick, with responsibility for nearly 50,000 pupils and 145 schools.[19]

            In the decade following the commission's report, the question of French-language education in the other English-speaking provinces became an increasingly prominent political issue.  Federal language legislation, proclaiming as it did the official equality of English and French, greatly enhanced the social and political status of the French language in the country as a whole; but it could not extend language equality to education since this was a provincial responsibility.  Federal declarations concerning the equal status of the two languages appeared strikingly incongruous when confronted with the reality: publicly-funded French-language schooling was virtually non-existent outside Quebec and New Brunswick.

            In 1976, when the Parti Québécois, a party seeking to create an independent Quebec state, was swept to power in the provincial elections, political attention was again focused on the crisis in French-English relations.  The new Quebec government deliberately drew attention to the harsh treatment of the French-speaking minority outside Quebec and publicly compared it with the privileged situation of the English-speaking minority in Quebec.  French-language education became a political issue associated with national unity and constitutional reform.

            In 1977, the ten provincial premiers, following a meeting in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, issued a statement of support for minority-language education:

Recognizing our concern for maintenance and where indicated, development of minority language rights in Canada; and recognizing that education is the foundation on which language and culture rest; The Premiers agree that they will make their best efforts to provide instruction in education in English and French wherever numbers warrant.[20]

This consensus later found expression in section 23 of the Constitution Act, 1982 where provision was made for minority language educational rights (see Table 2).  For example, the French-speaking minority was guaranteed the right to have their children educated in French, at both the primary and secondary school level.  More specifically, they were entitled to ‘minority language educational facilities provided out of public funds’ wherever the number of eligible children so warranted.  Similar provision was made for the English-speaking minority in Quebec.

            Children were entitled to receive a French-language education if their parents met any one of three possible conditions: they were citizens of Canada who had French as their mother tongue, or had received their primary school instruction in French, or had a child who had received school instruction in French.  Since French-language education was, until this time, relatively rare in most of the English-majority provinces, the first criteria, based on mother tongue, was generally the most relevant.

            An important issue, given the dispersion of French-speakers, was the interpretation to be given to the qualification ‘where the number of those children so warrants.’  This was interpreted quite differently by each provincial government.  In the primary schools, for example, the right to French-language education in a school district was warranted to exist if, in British Columbia, there were 10 pupils; in Manitoba, 23 pupils; in Ontario, Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island, 25 pupils; in New Brunswick, 30 pupils.[21]  In general, however, the courts were unwilling to set an exact number, claiming instead that each case should be judged on its merits.


Section 23.

(1) Citizens of Canada

(a) whose first language learned and still understood is that of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province in which they reside, or

(b) who have received their primary school instruction in Canada in English or French and reside in a province where the language in which they received that instruction is the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province, have the right to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in that language in that province.

(2) 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.

(3) The right of citizens of Canada under subsections (1) and (2) to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of a province

(a) applies wherever in the province the number of children of         citizens who have such a right is sufficient to warrant the provision to them out of public funds of minority language instruction; and

(b) includes, where the number of those children so warrants, the right to have them receive that instruction in minority language educational facilities provided out of public funds.

Source. Canada, Department of Justice.  A Consolidation of the Constitution Acts 1867 to 1982 (Ottawa:  Minister of Supply and Services, 1989).

            It was not immediately obvious that the right to French-language schooling might also include a guarantee of segmental autonomy.   This question hinged on the interpretation given to the expression ‘minority language educational facilities’ or, as the French text indicated, ‘des établissements d'enseignement de la minorité linguistique’.  The term ‘facilities’ appeared to refer simply to a physical site while the expression ‘établissements de la minorité’ seemed to imply a management structure.  The fact that the Canadian parliament had explicitly chosen ‘établissements’ as a replacement for the more restrictive term ‘installations’ found in the original French-language draft of the bill, underlined the significance of this wording.

            Several minority group representatives had requested that the minority's right to manage their schools be recognized in the constitution.  However, Jean Chrétien, the minister of justice at that time, did not support this request, arguing that the proposed constitutional guarantee should not go beyond the provincial consensus; since education was a provincial responsibility it was judged unwise for the federal government to impose its views in the matter.  In proposing that the bill be amended to include the term ‘établissements’, Chrétien suggested simply that this would permit minority schools to adopt modern educational technologies that extended beyond the walls of a specific facility.[22]  In any case, it was to be left to the courts to ensure that the provinces did not discriminate against the French-speaking minority and that schooling of equal quality was made available.

            The courts supported a generous interpretation of minority- language education rights.  In 1984 the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled, in the Education Act Reference, that s.23 implicitly granted French-speakers the right to participation in the management and control of their French-language educational facilities.[23]  This right would be realized if French-speaking representatives were given exclusive authority over their facilities, including the responsibility for the expenditure of funds and the appointment of administrators.   In the view of the court, majority rule had in the past led to unfortunate consequences, including the denial of French-language schools.  In 1987, the Alberta Court of Appeal, in Mahé v. R., arrived at a similar conclusion when it asserted the need for exclusive control by the French-speaking minority: ‘Any diminution in that power inevitably dilutes the uniqueness of the school and opens it to the influence of an insensitive if not hostile majority.’[24]

            The Supreme Court of Canada, in its 1990 judgment in the Mahé case, confirmed the right of the French-speaking minority in Canada (and the English-speaking minority in Quebec) to manage and control its schools.  Where the number of students was sufficient, the court ruled that the required degree of control could be attained through the creation of an independent French-language school board.  Otherwise, the condition could be met by the representation of the French-speaking minority within an existing school board.  Even in this latter case, however, the minority was to be given exclusive power for decisions pertaining to instruction in its French-language schools, including: the expenditure of funds for these schools; the appointment and the supervision of administrators in these schools; the establishment of school programmes; the recruitment and the placement of personnel, particularly teachers; and the concluding of agreements for teaching minority students and for providing services.[25]   The public funds provided must be sufficient to ensure that the schooling given the French-speaking minority is equal in quality to that given the majority.

            Clearly, then, the Canadian constitution guarantees the French-speaking minority significant autonomy in the control of its schools although this autonomy may be accomplished using various management models.  Most provinces, however, were recalcitrant in granting this autonomy and yielded only when so obligated by the courts, following litigation by the French-speaking minority.  At the time of the Supreme Court decision in the Mahé case in 1990, the most common management model was the optional advisory committee.[26]  These committees were composed of French-speaking parents and established at the discretion of the English-language school board.  They existed in six provinces but had only a consultative role; they did not give the minority decision-making power.

            As we have noted, the first autonomous French-language school boards were created in New Brunswick in 1981, i.e., before the adoption of the constitutional amendment guaranteeing minority language educational rights.  Ontario followed next with the creation of French-language school boards for Metropolitan Toronto and Ottawa-Carleton in 1989, and for Prescott-Russell in 1991.   Elsewhere in the province, however, responsibility for French-language schools belongs to English-language school boards, although it is shared with their French-language sections or advisory committees.  Prince Edward Island created a province-wide French-language school board in 1990.  Nova Scotia established a French-language school board for Halifax in 1992, but the situation remains unresolved in other regions of the province.  The western provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba each created French-language school boards in 1994.  Alberta established three French-language school boards and three coordinating councils, while Saskatchewan established eight French-language school boards.  Manitoba, on the other hand, established a province-wide Franco-Manitoban School Division regrouping 20 schools and 4,200 students.[27]  No agreement has yet been reached concerning French-language school boards in British Colombia or Newfoundland.

            It is not feasible to examine each of these cases in detail.  However, the Alberta situation will be studied further in order to cast light on the characteristics of the newly-established French-language school boards, as well as the conditions leading to their creation.  This will allow a better understanding of the segmental autonomy granted to Canada's dispersed French-speaking minority.


The Alberta government supported the principle of French-language minority schools in 1977 at St. Andrews and subsequently approved the 1982 amendment to the Canadian constitution.  Nevertheless, it vigorously resisted the actual establishment of these schools in the province.

            In its policy statement on minority language instruction, formally announced in 1978, the government explained that French-language instruction might be offered, but it was to be open to all language groups.  Alberta refused to make a distinction between a French immersion school, where French was taught to English-speakers, and a French minority school, where French was taught to French-speakers: ‘It will continue to be our policy to allow admission to French language programmes regardless of mother-tongue.’[28]  The result, given the minority status of French-speakers and the widespread interest among English-speakers for French instruction, was that Alberta's French-language schools were, in reality, French immersion schools.  The schools were largely oriented to English-speakers and became yet another instrument for assimilating the French-speaking minority.  In 1981-82, when the Canadian constitution was amended, there were 13,131 students registered in Alberta's French-language schools.  It is doubtful that more than 20 per cent of these were native French-speakers.

            In 1982 a group of French-speaking parents in Edmonton contacted, first, the minister of education and then, subsequently, the Edmonton Public School Board and the Edmonton Catholic School Board, to request a French-language minority school.  When this request was refused, the parents took their case to court claiming that the province's School Act contravened s.23 of the Constitution Act, 1982.  In the Mahé case, the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench supported the parents and, in 1985, it ordered the province to make specific provision for French-language minority schools.  The province agreed to recognize minority schools, as distinct from immersion schools and, in 1988, adopted a new School Act that provided an explicit declaration of the right of the French-speaking minority to school instruction in French.

            The new School Act still did not provide for the management of these schools by the French-speaking minority, however, and the parents of the Bugnet Association continued their court battle.  In 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled, as noted earlier, that French-speakers were entitled to manage and control their schools.  French-language schools that were not managed by the French-speaking minority were not true minority schools and did not meet the standards imposed by the constitution.  The court ordered the province to enact legislation that would put into place a minority language education scheme consistent with s.23 of the charter.

            The provincial government reacted negatively to this decision and it threatened to override the minority guarantee by using the constitution's so-called `notwithstanding' clause.  When advised that this clause was not applicable to s.23, the government reluctantly produced a working paper that reviewed the key points of the court decision and examined two different models of school management.[29]  In 1991 it appointed a French Language Working Group, chaired by a member of the legislative assembly and composed of nine members representing the principal stakeholders, including the French-speaking population.  This group was charged with making recommendations for a management model that would meet the criteria set out by the Supreme Court and that would be relevant to the situation in Alberta.  Its recommendations were unanimous and, a year later, the minister of education appointed a Francophone School Governance Implementation Committee, chaired by an assistant deputy minister and composed of seven other members.  The committee's mandate was to propose a strategy for the implementation of the working group's recommendations.  Finally, in 1993, the legislative assembly adopted an amendment to the School Act that provided for minority school boards and coordinating councils.  These were established in 1994.

            The Alberta government had doggedly resisted the introduction of French-language minority schools for many years.  However, following the Supreme Court decision in 1990, it initiated school reforms that were consistent with the constitutional guarantees and with Alberta's particular situation.  Significantly, these reforms were developed in close consultation with the French-speaking population of the province.

            An important feature of the new school system was the creation of seven new school districts, described in the newly-amended School Act as Francophone Education Regions (see Figure 2.)  The decision to create a regional system, rather than one province-wide system, reflected a consensus in the French-speaking community that a regional system would provide closer links with the population, thus ensuring: greater popular participation, more efficient response to different needs and better delivery of services.  In general, it was felt that such a system would be more democratic and more sensitive to regional differences within the province.[30]


Note. The cities and towns marked on the map are communities that currently possess French-language schools.

Source.  Guide de mise en oeuvre de la gestion scolaire francophone (Edmonton: Alberta Education, School Business Administration Services, 1994), p. 8.

            Given the size of the province and the distribution of its French-speaking population, a regional system was an appropriate choice.  The province of Alberta has an area of 661,190 sq. km., making it 16 per cent larger than France.  On average, each of the new education regions is three times the size of Belgium and more than twice the size of Estonia.  Further, the French-speaking population in Alberta, like that in Saskatchewan, is not concentrated in any one region of the province.  This contrasts considerably with the situation in Manitoba or in Prince Edward Island, where there is greater concentration and where province-wide districts were created.  In Prince Edward Island, for example, the original French-language school board had jurisdiction only for the Evangeline Region, home to the great majority of the province's French-speakers.  Later, at the request of the French-speaking minority, the board's jurisdiction was extended to all French-speakers, whatever their place of residence, thereby giving the board province-wide authority.










enrolled in

eligible for

enrolled in




all schools

French schools

French schools


























No. 1

Peace River







No. 2

Fort McMurray







No. 3

St. Paul







No. 4








No. 5

Red Deer







No. 6








No. 7
















Note. The figures for student enrollments are for grades one through twelve in publicly-supported schools as of 30 September 1993.  The 17,103 students enrolled in private schools are not included.  The number of students eligible for French-language schooling under s.23 is an estimate calculated from the 1991 census results.  It measures the number of students, ages five to seventeen, who have a French-speaking mother or father.

Sources. Calculated from: `Inscriptions dans les écoles francophones de l'Alberta', Le Chaînon: Bulletin d'information de la Fédération des parents francophones de l'Alberta v7 n2 (1993), p. 3;  Enrollments by School and Grade within Original Jurisdiction as at September 30, 1993 (Edmonton: Alberta Education, Grants Planning and Administration Branch, 1993); Guide de mise en oeuvre de la gestion scolaire francophone (Edmonton: Alberta Education, School Business Administration Services, 1994), p. 10.

     The regional system adopted in Alberta was generally preferred to another possible alternative: a system based on a large number of small local districts.  It was feared that if the districts were too small, the population base would also be too small; it would be difficult to create educational institutions comparable to those of the majority.  Further, the choice of a regional system was consistent with the provincial government's announced intention to amalgamate smaller school districts and to establish larger regional divisions.  (The number of English-language districts was subsequently reduced from 146 to 57.)

            The Francophone Education Regions are a realistic reflection of the geographic distribution of the French-speaking minority.  Examination of the distribution map (see Figure 1) shows that the great majority of the province's French-speakers are located in four major areas of the province.  These are: Edmonton, Calgary, St.Paul-Bonnyville and Peace River-Fahler.  There are also smaller populations in Red Deer, Fort McMurray and Lethbridge.  These various urban clusters provide natural centres for education regions that encompass the entire province (see Table 3).

            The amended School Act also provided for the creation of Francophone Regional Authorities in each region, that is, French-language school boards.  (According to s.6, any reference in the law to a school board is deemed to apply to a regional authority.)  The new authorities were mandated to manage and control the French minority schools of their region.  This includes responsibility for: tracking eligible students and facilitating their education in French, representing French-speaking parents, promoting French-language instruction in the province, maintaining links with other regional authorities, and developing rules and regulations for French education.[31]  As school boards, they were also empowered, by the School Act, to: establish policies for the provision of educational services and programmes; offer courses, programmes and instructional materials for use in schools; to employ teachers and non-teaching personnel including administrators and supervisors; to maintain and furnish their real property; to make rules respecting the attendance and transportation of students and, generally, all matters within their jurisdiction.

            Each regional authority is composed of five members elected by the French-speaking population of the region.  The School Act grants voting rights, first and foremost, to the parents of students registered in the minority schools of the region.  However, it also authorizes the minister of education to extend the franchise to other French-speakers, particularly those whose children are eligible for the minority schools, even if these children are not yet (or are no longer) registered.  The first elections were organized in 1994 by the Fédération des parents francophones de l'Alberta.  Subsequent elections, held in October 1995 and then every three years thereafter, are the responsibility of the regional authority.

            The amended School Act also provides, in section 223.3, for the transfer of the necessary facilities and employees from the existing school boards to the new regional authorities.  It is incumbent on the boards and the authorities to negotiate the transfer of this property; however, the minister reserves the right to intervene where no agreement is reached within three months.  In 1994, employees in the minority schools were free to transfer to the new authority or to remain with their existing board.  The authorities were required to respect the employment contracts currently in effect until their normal expiry.  Where the property and the employees were already closely identified with the French minority schools, these transfers generally took place without incident.  Other cases were more controversial.  For example, in St. Paul, where the existing French minority school was badly overcrowded, the regional authority requested the transfer of an English-language school attended, in great majority, by students eligible for the French minority programme.  The school board refused this request and the minister of education was forced to settle the issue.  A new French minority school will be constructed.

            In 1994 the school boards lost their traditional power to levy school taxes.  This had been the source of 42 per cent of their income in 1993.  These taxes are now to be collected solely by the provincial government and then redistributed proportionately according to the number of students served by the board.  School boards currently receive a provincial grant of about $4,200 per student for school maintenance and teaching.  Additional grants are determined by the specific characteristics of the district, including its size, population density, student needs and programme costs.  Thus, for example, in 1994-95, regional authorities received a further grant of $332 per elementary student and $406 per secondary student to meet the costs of French-language instruction.[32]  As the result of an agreement signed with the Government of Canada in October 1993, the Government of Alberta received federal funding to assist the implementation of the new French-language school system. It received, for example, federal grants of $5.4 million for school management costs, $6.4 million for programme development and $4.5 million for school construction.[33]

            In planning the management of minority education in Alberta, the provincial government had considered two possible models.[34]  The first model, a `designated positions' model, would have reserved places for French-speaking trustees on existing English-language school boards.  The second model, a `regional board' model, proposed the creation of new French-language school boards in regions where there were large numbers of French-speaking students.  Both models would have met the standards imposed by the Supreme Court in the Mahé case.  However, the major interest groups, the Fédération des parents francophones de l'Alberta, the Alberta School Trustees Association and the Alberta Teachers Association, all gave their support to the second model.  Consequently, the government decided, with some reluctance, that the `regional board' model would be `more workable.'  Compared to its alternative, this model seemed likely to ensure that, in the future, disputes between English and French trustees over jurisdiction and rôles would be avoided.

            The new regional authorities were intended for regions where there were a sufficient number of minority students.  Nevertheless, the actual establishment of an authority by the minister of education was to be made at the request of the region's French-speaking parents.  Four regions, centred in Edmonton, Calgary, St. Paul and Peace River, appeared to meet the required minimum for students (see Table 3).  However, French-speakers in Calgary opposed the immediate creation of a regional authority, undoubtedly because it would have jeopardized the Roman Catholic School Board's plan to construct a new French minority school and community centre.  Thus, only three regional authorities were established in 1994.

            Francophone Coordinating Councils were established in Calgary and in the two other regions where there were French minority schools.  The amended School Act charged the councils, in section 223.7, to facilitate the French-language education of minority students and to advise school boards on all matters relating to this education.  The councils lacked the autonomy granted to the school boards, but they were clearly expected to be a temporary measure.  If successful in expanding French-language instruction in the region, the councils would contribute to their own demise: they would be dissolved, to be replaced by a regional authority.

            Alberta's French-language school boards have been in operation for less than a year and a full assessment is undoubtedly premature.  Some preliminary observations may be made, however.  First, it is evident that, by freeing the French minority schools from English-language school boards, the potential for English-French tensions has been significantly reduced.  This is particularly true in the Edmonton region where disputes over minority schools have marred relations for more than a decade.  Second, it appears that French-language schooling will now be more responsive to the needs of the French-speaking community.  This community is now able to take a more active role in the development of its education and to provide a wider-range of French-language educational services.

            Significant problems remain.  While the granting of minority education rights was clearly intended to repair past injustice, the clock cannot be turned back.  The great majority of French-speakers in Alberta were, until recently, educated in English.  Their children often speak English as their mother tongue.  It is estimated that only 20 per cent of those students who are eligible for minority schooling, as guaranteed by s.23, are in fact native French-speakers.[35]  The English-speaking children of French-speaking parents are more likely to be registered in French immersion schools, than in French minority schools.[36]  Nevertheless, these children pose a particular dilemma for the French-language school boards.

            For many French-speaking Albertans, religion is as important as language in defining their cultural values.  Most French-speakers are also Roman Catholic and most French-language schools were, until 1994, governed by Roman Catholic separate school boards.  In the battle for French-language schools, some French-speakers have seen separate English and French educational systems as creating an undesirable schism within the Catholic community.  Other French-speakers, a minority, have actively sought the creation of non-denominational French-language schools.  The first major decision facing the new regional authorities has been the determination of their denominational status.  In Edmonton, the authority has chosen a Roman Catholic identity.

            It should also be noted that the autonomy accorded the regional authorities and, indeed, all school boards, has limits.  Ultimate responsibility for education remains with the provincial government, and with the minister of education.  This includes, for example, the right to collect school taxes, to certify teachers and to determine curriculum.  French-speakers generally lack autonomy within Alberta Education, although a separate branch, the Language Services Branch, exists to provide support to French-language and other non-English schools.  Consequently, the French-speaking community has called for the creation of a separate Francophone Division responsible for French minority schooling.[37]  This division, to be headed by an assistant deputy minister, would ensure that French-speakers have even greater control of their education system.  A similar, but more comprehensive reform, was adopted in New Brunswick in 1981 when the ministry of education was divided into separate French and English sections, each headed by a deputy minister.


            The Canadian experience suggests that it is difficult for a dispersed minority to obtain segmental autonomy.  Many provincial governments effectively banned French-language instruction until the 1960s.  A combination of political events, notably the statutory recognition of French as an official language in 1968 and the electoral victory of an independence party in Quebec in 1976, contributed to the constitutional reform that guaranteed minority schools in 1982.  This constitutional guarantee was the all-important step on a tortuous path, marked by frequent litigation, that is only now culminating in the establishment of French-language school boards.  Nevertheless, in most cases, this autonomy was conceded by the provinces under duress.  Segmental autonomy was implemented because it was ordered by the courts.

            A recent referendum in Quebec has raised some questions as to the future of Canada's French-speaking minority and their constitutionally-guaranteed language rights.  In a referendum held on 30 October 1995, Quebecers narrowly defeated (50.6% to 49.4%) a proposition to create an independent Quebec state.  The narrowness of this margin has convinced many that the future separation of Quebec is inevitable.  Further, the governing Parti Québécois is committed to a third referendum on this question.  (In the first referendum, held in May 1980, a government proposition to negotiate independence while continuing political association, a regime described as Sovereignty-Association, was defeated 60% to 40%.)  If Quebec became independent, would Canada maintain its constitutional guarantees for the French language?

            In a Canada without Quebec, the remaining one million French-speakers would constitute only 5.2 per cent of the population.  Although they would still be the country's largest language minority, some analysts suggest that their numbers would be too small to justify their current constitutional rights, particularly in the face of an English-speaking majority angry at the break-up its country.  According to Roger Gibbons:  ‘The francophone population, stripped of the political protection afforded by Quebec, would be too small to warrant constitutional protection . . . .  In all probability, the official-languages sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would be repealed at the first opportunity.’[38]

            It is difficult to predict the full consequences of the possible break-up of Canada.  Certainly, there are other countries where language minorities have achieved official recognition even though they number less than five per cent of the population (and much less than one million persons).  Switzerland, for example, has long recognized Italian as a national language (since 1874) and as an official language (since 1938), although today only 4.5 per cent (and less than a quarter-million) of its citizens are Italian-speaking.  Nevertheless, the Italian-speakers are not a dispersed minority: the great majority live in the canton of Ticino.

            Estonia adopted a Law on the Cultural Self-Government of National Minorities in 1925 that permitted the German, Russian, Swedish and Jewish minorities (indeed, any minority numbering at least 3,000, i.e. about 0.2 per cent of the population) to control their cultural and educational institutions.[39]  The most dispersed minorities, the Germans and the Jews, availed themselves of this opportunity, although they numbered only 1.8 per cent and 0.4 per cent, respectively, of the total population.  Latvia similarly recognized the autonomy of its dispersed minorities, in 1919, although this was limited to educational institutions.

            The Estonian and Latvian examples suggest that it is not impossible for a small, dispersed minority to obtain segmental autonomy in the field of education.  While the recent establishment of Canada's French-language school boards owes much to the demographic and political importance of Quebec, its justification does not disappear with the possible separation of Quebec from the Canadian federation.  Further, the advantages of these school boards become even more apparent as they become increasingly well-established.  Indeed, at this point, any attempt to eliminate French-language schools would entail substantial financial and social costs.   Nevertheless, as some observers have commented, it is impossible to guarantee the good humour of a couple involved in divorce proceedings.  In the event of Quebec's separation, French-language schools might be targeted by a vengeful English-speaking majority.

            Education is an area of critical concern to the French-speaking minority.  The granting of limited autonomy in this area constitutes an interesting application of a consociational strategy.  For the minority, it provides greater democratic participation, increased security from arbitrary decisions and, in general, new hope for the future.  The longer term effects on English-French relations remain to be seen.  A similar model for minority autonomy could by applied to other areas, notably cultural and health services.  In the current political context, however, this seems improbable.


An earlier version of this article was presented at the Conference on the Governance of Dispersed Ethnic Groups held at the University of Ottawa on 3 June 1995.  I would like to thank Jean Laponce for his kind invitation to present a paper at this conference.  I am also grateful to my colleagues France Levasseur-Ouimet and Frank McMahon for their helpful comments on French minority education in Alberta; and to Francine Roy for her capable assistance with the preparation of the tables.



[1]. Gabriel Almond, ‘Comparative Political Systems’, Journal of Politics, v18 (1956), 391-409.

[2]. Stein Rokkan, Citizens, Elections, Parties (Oslo: Scandinavian University Books, 1970), pp. 72-144.

[3]. Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977), pp. 25-52.

[4]. Arend Lijphart, ‘Consociational Democracy’, World Politics v21 (1969), 207-225;  Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies, pp. 87-99.

[5]. Edmund A. Aunger, ‘Regional, National and Official Languages in Belgium’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, no 104 (1993), 31-48.

[6]. Edmund A. Aunger, In Search of Political Stability: A Comparative Study of New Brunswick and Northern Ireland (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1981), p. 169.

[7]. Richard Joy, Languages in Conflict (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), p. 86.

[8]. Réjean Lachapelle, ‘Évolution des groupes linguistiques et situation des langues officielles au Canada’, in André Renaud (ed.), Tendances démolinguistiques et évolution des institutions canadiennes (Montréal: Association d'études canadiennes, 1989), p. 14.

[9]. Aunger, In Search of Political Stability, pp. 166-169.  These figures were calculated in order to provide comparative measures of territorial segregation in New Brunswick and Northern Ireland.  On the whole, when all segmental groups were considered, it was found that New Brunswick's population was much more regionally segregated than Northern Ireland's.  For example, in New Brunswick, 46.3 per cent of the population lived in very homogeneous regions, i.e. regions where 90 per cent shared the same ethnic origin.  By contrast, in Northern Ireland, only 17.6 per cent lived in very homogeneous regions.  Further, when a Gini index of segregation was calculated, New Brunswick received a high (.85) measure and Northern Ireland a considerably lower (.43) measure.  All these figures were calculated from the 1971 census results.

[10]. George F. Stanley, ‘The Caraquet Riots of 1875’, Acadiensis, vol. 2 (1972), 21-38.

[11]. Aunger, In Search of Political Stability, pp. 110-113.

[12]. Gilberte LeBlanc, Alcide Godin and Aldéo Renaud, ‘L'enseignement français dans les Maritimes, 1604-1992’, in Jean Daigle (ed.), L'Acadie des Maritimes (Moncton: Chaire d'études acadiennes, Université de Moncton, 1993), p. 553.

[13]. Pierre Foucher, Constitutional Language Rights of Official-Language Minorities in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Law Information Council, 1985), p. 191.

[14]. Edmund A. Aunger, ‘Language and Law in the Province of Alberta’, in Paul Pupier and José Woehrling (eds), Language and Law (Montreal: Wilson & Lafleur, 1989), p. 215.

[15]. Chad Gaffield, Language, Schooling, and Cultural Conflict (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987), p. 15.


[16]. Canada, Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Report, 6 vols (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1967-1970).

[17]. Hugh R. Innis, Bilingualism and Biculturalism: An Abridged Version of the Royal Commission Report (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973), pp. 50-54.

[18]. Kenneth McRoberts, ‘Making Canada Bilingual: Illusions and Delusions of Federal Language Policy’, in David P. Shugarman and Reg Whitaker (eds), Federalism and Political Community: Essays in Honour of Donald Smiley (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1989), pp. 141-171.

[19]. Canada, Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual Report 1993 (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1994), p. 132.

[20]. Statement on Language (St. Andrews, New Brunswick: 18th Annual Premiers' Conference, 18-19 August 1977), p. 1.

[21]. Heather Lysons-Balcon. ‘Minority Language Educational Guarantees in the Canadian Charter’, in Rhatna Ghosh and Douglas Ray (eds) Social Change and Education in Canada (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), p. 162.

[22]. Proceedings of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on the Constitution, 32nd Parliament 1st Session, n36, n38, n48 (Ottawa: Parliament of Canada, 1981).

[23]. `Reference to the Ontario Court of Appeal Re: Education Act, Minority Language Education Rights, 1984', in Jules Deschênes (ed.), Ainsi parlèrent les tribunaux: Conflits linguistiques au Canada, 1968-1985, v2 (Montreal: Wilson & Lafleur, 1985), pp. 505-536.

[24]. Quoted by Angéline Martel, Official Language Minority Education Rights in Canada: From Instruction to Management (Ottawa: Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 1991), p. 30.

[25]. Mahé c. R.: Jean-Claude Mahé, Angéline Martel, Paul Dubé et l'Association de l'École Georges et Julia Bugnet c. Sa Majesté la Reine du chef de la Province de l'Alberta (Ottawa: Supreme Court of Canada, 15 March 1990), p. 5.

[26]. Martel, p. 246.

[27]. Canada, Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual Report 1994 (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1995), p. 86.

[28]. Peter Lougheed and Julian Koziak, Minority Language Instruction (Edmonton: Alberta Education, Communications Branch, 1 March 1978).

[29]. Management and Control of French Education in Alberta (Edmonton: Alberta Education, November 1990).

[30]. P. A. Lamoureux and Denis Tardif, Un système d'éducation franco-albertain: Étude sur la gestion et le contrôle de l'enseignement en français en Alberta (Edmonton: l'Association canadienne-française de l'Alberta et la Fédération des parents francophones de l'Alberta, 1990), p. 56; Guide de mise en oeuvre de la gestion scolaire francophone (Edmonton: Alberta Education, School Business Administration Services, 4 March 1994), p. 9.

[31]. Guide de mise en oeuvre, p. 17.

[32]. Financement des autorités régionales et des conseils de coordination (Edmonton: Alberta Education, 1995).

[33]. Guide de mise en oeuvre, p. 48.

[34]. Management and Control, pp. 8-11.

[35]. Armand Bédard, ‘Les ayants droits’, Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement des sciences (Quebec: Université Laval, 15 May 1990).

[36]. Edmund A. Aunger, ‘The Decline of a French-Speaking Enclave: A Case Study of Social Contact and Language Shift in Alberta’, Canadian Ethnic Studies v25 n2 (1993), p. 79.

[37].  Lamoureux and Tardif, p. 39.

[38]. Roger Gibbons, ‘Speculations on a Canada without Quebec’, in Kenneth McRoberts and Patrick Monahan (eds), The Charlottetown Accord, the Referendum and the Future of Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), p. 271.

[39]. Karl Aun, ‘The Cultural Autonomy of National Minorities in Estonia’, Yearbook of the Estonian Learned Society in America, v1 (1951-53), p. 30; Karl Aun, ‘On the Spirit of the Estonian Minorities Law’, in E. Blumfeldt (ed.), Apophoreta Tartuensia (Stockholm: Societas Litterarum Estonica in Svecia, 1949), pp. 240-241.