Estimates are an opportunity for opposition members of the legislative assembly to ask specific and detailed questions of the ministers about their budgets.

This week in estimates, I asked the Minister of Education about the Cowichan High School and French Immersion.

Cowichan High School

School District 79 is in desperate need of a new high school, and the community has been hard at working making sure the land, zoning, community plan, and partnerships are in place to be ready to go when the government provides the funding. This was my exchange with the minister in Estimates about the Cowichan High School:

S. Furstenau: I really appreciate that the minister came up to Cowichan in the fall and did a tour of our high school. I’m wondering if he could provide both a bit of background on how we got to where we are right now and, also, looking forward, what steps we can expect to be seen taken in the next year, ideally, on the Cowichan high school.

Hon. R. Fleming: I thank the member for the question and also for being available when I was able to go up to Cowichan to tour the secondary school and to have a meeting with community leaders.

What I can say is that Cowichan Secondary, while it has been a priority for the district for a number of years, was really nowhere on the capital plan that the ministry used when we assumed government. Right now, the change that has happened is that it remains the number one priority for the Cowichan district, and it’s the ministry’s number one priority within that district.

So we are working closely with Cowichan on this proposal. We’ve sent some of our top officials up to Cowichan to meet with the staff in the district. Those top officials sit to my left, Reg Bawa; and behind me, Joel Palmer. They have been in close contact and for a site visit as well.

The desire is for a replacement facility in Cowichan. There are parts of the building that are H1 high risk. There are elements of the project that make it a good candidate for replacement, but we will have to look at all the options and which ones are the most cost-effective. There are some complexities in the idea around the replacement, which involve land swaps and potential land disposals, that are also part of this discussion.

Of course, its proximity to Vancouver Island University and the trades training program there — the partnerships with post-secondary institutions — makes it very exciting. But it also means that there have to be legal agreements, and those things have to be signed off.

We’re also interested — and we’ve let Cowichan know this — that the possibility for child care spaces be explored and be part of any potential new project there.

So there’s lots of discussion that’s happening, and I’d urge the member to stay tuned. It’s certainly on our radar screen and would be a great project for the Cowichan Valley. I’m happy to say, as I said a moment ago, that it really is the ministry’s number one priority for capital projects in her district at this point in time.

French Immersion

I received an email from a constituent asking why French Immersion is not better funded in our communities. This was the minister’s response:

S. Furstenau: Thanks to the minister for that. Another question, more on a general topic but also related to Cowichan, is the demand for French immersion. In Cowichan, we’ve switched to a lottery system where parents are getting their children into the French immersion programs through lottery rather than lining up at 3 a.m. However, the demand certainly does exceed the supply of French immersion spaces.

I’m just wondering if there are any plans — specific to Cowichan, but also generally — to recognize that there is a higher demand for French immersion than we are able to meet right now, and what plans there are for the minister and the ministry to work on that.

Hon. R. Fleming: Thank you for the question. It’s a very good question. It’s a current challenge, well outside of the Cowichan Valley, in many parts of British Columbia. To give the member an idea of the scale of growth of demand for French education in the province, it’s grown by 30 percent over the last ten years. This is at a time when the overall student population has declined slightly.

School districts, of course, locally determine their education programming, so they, in a sense, determine the demand for French teachers, but the ministry tries to support that as best we can. Now that we are facing shortages and have been for some time, many years now, we’re looking at ways that we can better anticipate the growth in demand. And solving the issue with more supply of French teachers is really what we need to do.

There are a couple of initiatives. One is around domestic training. We need to train more teachers in our faculties of education in French language. Perhaps even existing in-service teachers — we need to train, with professional development, people who are proficient at French but that you wouldn’t call, maybe, capable of teaching in a bilingual setting or in an immersion setting.

Domestic training. The member should know that we increased the number of seats that we fund for French teachers in B.C. universities recently. That came out of the task force on recruitment and retention that met in October and delivered its report to us in January. So we moved fast on that recommendation.

The other is that interprovincially, we have hired a large number of French-speaking teachers from around the country, and that was in response to the requirement from the Supreme Court decision. We have probably exhausted the interprovincial…. Not entirely, but Ontario and other provinces are having the same problems that British Columbia is.

There may come a point where finding French-speaking teachers from other parts of Canada to come and teach in B.C. is a diminishing return type of strategy. We’re open to looking at international recruitment. In November of 2017, the province, through the provincial nominee program, held discussions with several west European countries about recruiting teachers to come — what it would take to come and work here.

Some B.C. universities have sister relationships with French universities, for example. Strengthening those existing ties and having a program that may acculturate teachers to come work in British Columbia and put them on a course through the PNP program, where they can successfully locate themselves into British Columbia, is a strategy that we’re looking at as well.

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