The rise, fall, and rebirth of Ontario’s oldest francophone public high school

For the past 50 years, Welland’s École secondaire Confédération has offered students an education in French — and faced competition, culture clashes, and school-board politics
By Justin Dallaire - Published on September 6, 2018
a French school in Welland, Ontario
In May, roughly 1,200 francophones travelled to Welland to celebrate the 50th anniversary of École secondaire Confédération. (Facebook)

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Tucked away on quiet residential street in Welland is an aging testament to francophone culture in southern Ontario. At its peak, in the 1970s, it welcomed nearly 900 students from across Niagara. There was a time when its volleyball team ranked among the best in the province (according to a former coach), its orchestra counted 40-plus members, and its theatre group performed plays by Molière. “It wasn’t even an option,” says Marie-Jeanne Gauthier, a graduate and retired librarian. “If you were francophone, you came here.”

Established in September 1968, École secondaire Confédération is the oldest French-language public high school in the province. In May, roughly 1,200 francophones from across Ontario and Quebec — and some from as far away as British Columbia and the Northwest Territories — travelled to Welland to celebrate its 50th anniversary. But those who remember the glory days would find it changed beyond recognition.

Last year, enrolment hit a new low: around 65 students at the secondary level and another 40 in grades 7 and 8; six teens made up the graduating class of 2018. The once-bustling two-storey building now seems empty. (Full disclosure: my family and I are graduates of Confédération; my mother and uncle worked there for many years.)

In little more than a year’s time, the school will be flattened by bulldozers. On a neighbouring lot, a new school is being erected that will amalgamate Confédération with a French public elementary school. The school board projects that roughly 400 pupils — including more than 250 at the secondary level — will enrol when it opens in 2019.

These ambitious projections reveal the extent to which a school’s fate rests on school-board politics. Just as Confédération’s decades-long decline can in part be attributed to the rise of a second minority-language high school in Welland and the explosion of French immersion programs, the opening of a new school may be enough to spark its revival.

Since 1997, Ontario has tied school-board funding to enrolment. It allocates additional funds based on the number, distribution, and physical condition of schools in the board, as well as on students’ specific language and educational needs. The goal, according to the website of People for Education, a non-partisan research and policy group, is to make “education funding more equitable across the province.” It notes that funding is “not meant to be equal, as different boards have different needs.”

But critics say the formula pits school boards against one another. In small francophone communities like Niagara (roughly 3.5 per cent of whose population is French-speaking) with four publicly funded boards, the dynamic can be downright antagonistic. The pool of eligible francophone students is limited — and proportionally on the decline, according to a recent report from the French Language Services Commissioner of Ontario. And because provincewide enrolment continues to drop, English boards also have reason to target francophones.

Confédération’s struggles can be traced back to the establishment of École secondaire Catholique Jean-Vanier, a French Catholic school in Niagara. Opened in 1992, Jean-Vanier moved from St. Catharines to Thorold in 1994 and then, five years later, into an old building in west-end Welland. Around 2006, the Catholic board began debating the possibilities of either renovating the school or building anew.

Complicating matters for the board, the province offered an additional $4.3 million in funding toward a new school if Jean-Vanier were to return to St. Catharines, saying that the move would better serve Niagara’s francophone population as a whole.

To leave Welland, however, would not have been in Jean-Vanier’s best interests. As the school council highlighted in documents prepared for the board, Welland is centrally located in Niagara, has the largest francophone population, is home to a French Catholic church, and is provincially designated as bilingual. It weighed these considerations against the fact that remaining in Welland would mean contending with “competition that doesn’t exist in St. Catharines” and “an immersion program very well perceived by francophones.”  

Ultimately, the board voted to stay in Welland, and a new school was opened just four kilometres north of Confédération. The Niagara Region consists of 12 municipalities and spans more than 1,800 square kilometres. Yet, in 2010, its two French high schools virtually became neighbours.

Many of the students, parents, and teachers I spoke to noted the strained relationship between the schools and between the boards more generally. Even when it comes to organizing events for younger students, says Astrid Quenneville, who has been involved as a parent with Jean-Vanier and Saint-Antoine Catholic Elementary in Niagara Falls, the boards almost never want to mix. “It’s politically impossible.” The problem is that they “see themselves as adversaries.”

Over the years, many students fled Confédération for Jean-Vanier. Their reasons varied: the appeal of upgraded facilities, the perception among parents that Catholic schools are stricter, the school’s competitiveness in sports. In some cases, religion played a role, even though attendance at Welland’s French Catholic church has dropped precipitously. As Dolorès Bujold-Wright, a graduate of Confédération and a former president of Jean-Vanier’s school council put it, “A lot of people send their children to Catholic school because it’s the only exposure to religion that they get.”

Jean-Vanier’s enrolment now sits at around 500 secondary students, up from 200 in 1999. While that may indicate it made the right choice by staying in Welland, the distance that out-of-town francophone students would have to travel to reach it will drive many of them into the English system.

There are 13 French elementary schools in Niagara (including the middle-school programs at Confédération and Jean-Vanier). But students in more than half of them must be willing to travel to another city if they want to attend a French high school — and they’re less likely to pursue that option, given the fact there are large English schools nearby with competitive immersion programs.

FLSC reports have found that more than 30 per cent of students in Southern Ontario leave the French school boards over the course of their studies; between grades 8 and 9 alone, 20 per cent transfer to the English school system. Writing in 2011, the authors noted that there is “little doubt that this situation is directly related to the inaccessibility of French-language schools since data demonstrates that retention rates decline as distance and inaccessibility of schools increase.”

Although Jean-Vanier’s success in Welland initially hurt its public counterpart, Confédération’s decline would accelerate due to the popularity of immersion programs.

In 2001, Yann Marais left Confédération, whose enrolment numbers had been dropping, to become director of Welland Centennial Secondary School’s French-immersion program. There, he began actively recruiting his former students. “I went after those kids,” he says, in part because he wanted his enrolment numbers to go up.

Marais says students began coming in droves once Centennial hired teachers more specialized in their fields. By his estimation, enrolment had doubled by 2003. “We used to go after francophones, but not anymore,” he says. “Because the francophones — no matter what, they come.”

It’s for these reasons that Peter Thanasse, a teacher at Confédération, believes the province’s enrolment-based funding model creates a “predatory environment.” He says the drive for English schools to offer immersion may function more as a means of recruiting students than as a response to a “pressing need” for French.

He is himself proof of the challenges this can pose to French-language schools. Originally from Sudbury, he and his family now live in St. Catharines. At home, he speaks nothing but French with his two bilingual daughters. Yet instead of making the move to a French high school last year, his elder daughter enrolled in French immersion at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in St. Catharines.

“It’s a question of proximity,” he says, noting that living near the school allows his daughter to take advantage of Sir Winston’s extracurricular activities. She’s now entering Grade 10, and Thanasse says he and his wife “do not at all regret their decision.” 

When Confédération is demolished next year, its name will go down with the bricks and mortar. A new name will be chosen for the combined school closer to completion. “If you ask people, the young teachers,” a retired teacher told me last year, “they will talk about how they need to change the name because they don’t want to be saddled with the baggage — you know, the name Confédération, which I guess they feel has a bad reputation. To me, it’s this proud tradition, and I’m sorry to see it lost.”

Justin Dallaire is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that enrolment in Welland Centennial’s French-immersion program, rather than at Confédération, had been declining when Yann Marais switched schools in 2001. TVO.org regrets the error.

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