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September 1998

The French

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Front Page

Teaching in French in
Northern Ontario

Teachers in northern Ontario face many challenges – long-distance travel, scarce resources and professional development opportunities, numerous courses to prepare and – if they teach in French – the added difficulty of getting students to speak French.

By Anne Sophie Leduc

Timmins teacher Irène Clermont just returned from a four-month teaching assignment in Moosonee, where she taught one group of students but six different grades.

Despite the isolation and the very long hours of daily work to prepare her lessons, she said she always had enough material. In her classroom, there was a fax machine, a telephone and a photocopier, as well as French music and movies.

The biggest obstacle she had to overcome was making sure her students spoke French in the classroom. Several of them only speak French in school. "The influence of the English language is pervasive. One really needs to create ways to foster the French culture. Older students must help younger ones." Clermont says teachers must find activities to encourage children to speak French outside the classroom.

Lise Gadoury, director of education at the Conseil scolaire de district catholique Franco-Nord in North Bay, shares her view. "Depending on the area they come from, teachers have to meet different challenges," she says. Gadoury first taught in Kapuskasing before moving to North Bay. She finds the language issue less of a challenge in a region where French is spoken at home.

For Gadoury, the role of directors of education in French-language school boards is also one of watchdog for the quality of education, even though there is a definite shortage of teaching materials in French. "The choice is more limited," she says. "Sometimes books suggested by publishers do not reflect the curriculum guidelines. There’s no market for this in Ontario."

Marcelle Donnelly spent five years in North Bay as a consultant. She also considers the preservation of the French language a tough challenge to meet in this area. Teachers must work with a minimum of resources. "Students are really anglicized in this region. We try to meet the curriculum requirements but students speak French only in school. They lack the vocabulary to the point they sometimes have a hard time understanding what is being said."

She says teachers learn by themselves to motivate their students to speak French. Their ultimate goal is to help them to better understand the texts, directions and vocabulary required to guarantee their education will be equivalent to that of English-language students.

However, Donnelly says the shortage of resources in French is common all across the province, no matter where you live. "The access to appropriate French materials is limited everywhere. This is the reality of a minority."


An equally difficult challenge for teachers in northern Ontario is finding timely and relevant opportunities for professional development. Unlike colleagues in large urban centres in the south of the province, they must travel long distances to take courses.

Hélène Koscielniak, a superintendent in the Conseil scolaire de district catholique des Grandes-Rivières, is responsible for the Services consultatifs de langue française – French-language advisory services – in the area. The aim of this provincial program is to help French-language teachers access professional development.

Five consultants, co-ordinated by the Réseau de formation et de programmation du Nord-Est, support the work of other consultants working within school boards in northeastern Ontario. These consultants travel all across the region to hold training sessions. "Teachers have to receive their training outside the classroom," she says. "We must give them enough time to read a new curriculum and compare it with the old one. It is difficult to offer relevant professional development activities with only four professional development days a year."

She’s one of many French-language teachers in the North who are worried that this help will fall victim to budget cuts. "The contribution of the Services consultatifs is vital," says Koscielniak. "We take advantage of these people’s expertise as much as we can. We can’t afford to lose this essential tool."

Lise Gadoury agrees. She is satisfied that French-language school boards still have access to Services consultatifs training opportunities for one more year. The consultants’ work is still considerable. "Co-ordinating the training requires an incredible amount of work in such a vast region. People are always on the road. It is exhausting and we have to set priorities for training. There are so many new curriculums, we barely have time to absorb them."

Nathalie Jacques, a teacher in Marathon, points out that elementary teachers in small communities need an in-depth knowledge of the curriculum for many grades. She finds professional development activities are rather complicated to organize in northern Ontario. "For every summer course, we must travel very far, and the choices are so limited."


However, there are advantages in working in a vast region where communities are small, few and far between. In Marathon, teachers organized a system where they can borrow resources from each other. In North Bay, Gadoury admits that, even though isolation can be a negative factor, it brings educators closer together. There is a great deal of co-operation between French-language school boards in the province and directors of education meet on a regular basis to share ideas, projects, resources and grant requests.

According to Donnelly, a large number of very good French-language teachers decide to stay in the region. "We try to improve the quality of the language, it is stimulating... there is a lot happening here. Our community benefits from all this co-operation. It is fairly easy to convince teachers to stay here."

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said everywhere. Hélène Koscielniak regrets the fact that too many good teachers leave Kapuskasing. "We must constantly train new people. It’s the same thing for principals – these people reach the age of retirement or they find positions somewhere else. We have to start all over, all the time."