Saturday, September 24, 2016

Water Wars and the Last Straw

The next world wars won't be about land or oil. They'll be about water. And Canada could be the next Iraq, invaded and decimated for the abundance of our natural resources. We have to stop corporate control over our most necessary resource now before it all slips out of our hands.

I watched Maude Barlow speak Thursday night in Guelph, and it was fitting it was in a church. I was in turns choking back tears and roused from my seat to applaud more than any preacher could compel me. She's a fascinating mix of intellectual brilliance and folksy warmth. She can rattle off an analysis of facts and figures at lightening speed, but as she signed my copy of her book and listened to me rave like a teenager about having her picture and words on my classroom wall, she put her hand on mine and looked into my eyes to thank me for being part of the fight. I saw Maude speak before, decades ago, and despite spreading the word far and wide since then, educated people in my midst still buy bottled water. "But I like the taste." Drinking water from the tap is a small price to pay (actually you'll save a fortune) for public control over waterways.

The evening was hosted by the Wellington Water Watchers, a small group of dedicated people with a huge fight on their hands. Our hands. Spokesperson Arlene Slocombe referred to Nestle as a multinational predator in our midst. They've been drawing water from Aberfoyle (near Guelph) and Hillsburgh (near Erin) for years, and now they've gotten hold of Middlebrook (near Elora). Studies have found that the quantity water in Middlebrook was needed for the citizens. The township offered to buy the land, but Nestle outbid them with full knowledge of the effect it will have on the people in the area. Profits over people all the way.

When Nestle's permit expired in July 2016, the provincial government passed a law that allowed Nestle an unlimited extension without any transparency. Wynne thinks the solution is to raise the fees for corporate water extraction, but that will have a negligible effect on the outcome. Nestle will profit from climate change, which is the foundation of Klein's concerns around disaster capitalism. We must put the public's right for water first, and overwhelming public support and political pressure is necessary to stop the renewal of permits. Aberfoyle is up for renewal now, and Hillsberg is coming up next summer. Nestle pays fees and taxes to the municipality it's situated in (for Aberfoyle, money goes to Puslinch, but the water draw also affects Guelph), so sometimes poorer municipalities prioritize immediate cash over the future livability of the area.

(Barlow's words are further down, below the selfie. This is the important bit.)

Check out all that Nestle owns (brands are all listed here and in this graphic or get the buycott app for your phone), and boycott Nestle products. Then take another step to tell them about it.
Tell your friends and family about the issue. Tell everyone on social media. Start a petition. Tweet it to celebrities and TV producers en masse. Nothing changes a society's behaviour as quickly as regular-type sit-com characters changing their behaviour. Remember when Rachel changed her hair? Boom! If the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine carried re-usable water bottles and were shown filling them from the tap instead of carrying bottled water and hanging around the water dispenser, it could change people's mindless behaviours.
Call, e-mail, and/or visit your Mayor to insist we ban single-use water bottles in our city like Montreal's trying to do or, at the very least, ban them in all municipal events and buildings. The Blue Community Project can help it happen in your area. So far 18 municipalities in Canada have succeeded in this ban. They're early adopters of this new mentality. At times the speakers seemed to suggest that a Nestle boycott would be enough to save the day: "Just close your wallet!", but Chomsky says personal boycotts have the same effect as committing suicide. I signed the pledge card, but I'd argue that they're useful mainly for our own sense of integrity. To really fix things, we need to legislate Nestle out of business by petitioning municipalities (and provinces and the whole flippin' world) to ban bottled water everywhere.
Call, e-mail, and/or make an appointment to see your MPP. Tell them Wynne has to get tougher with Nestle. It's not enough to just raise the fees. She has to stop them from selling the water that our municipalities need to flourish.
Call, e-mail, and/or make an appointment to see your MP. Tell them that Trudeau has to reinstate the acts decimated by Harper: the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Navigable Water Protection Act. (See below for more info on this one.) Tell them that if he doesn't, then we may as well be living under Harper's rule. No shirtless photo op will make you forget that he allowed Harper's mess to continue unabated. (Maybe don't tell them that last bit.)
Still PUMPED about it?  Then get involved with...
The Council of Canadians, the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance, and/or the Wellington Water Watchers. If you're local, then show up to Guelph council this Monday, Sept. 26. There's a rally at 5:00 and you can try to follow Councillor James Gordon in at 6:30 (if they'll let everyone in). He plans to introduce a motion asking council to send a letter to the province opposing Nestle's application.


Here's what Maude told us (highly paraphrased - she spoke a mile a minute - and organized so I can make sense of it all, but linked. Note that some links go to corporate sites to illustrate the types of profit-driven arguments being made on the other side of the issue.):

We Don't Have as Much as We Think:

The world is in crisis, and Guelph is a microcosm of these world issues. We're in a place where we've been conned by a myth of abundance. Most of Canada's fresh water is in the north. The available water in the south is decreasing yearly. Canadian lakes are warming more than anywhere else, and there's no protection for groundwater. It hasn't even been mapped yet, so we don't really know how much we actually have.

We dump toxins and sewage in our water making it largely undrinkable. Europe has much higher standards around polluting water. CETA  (the new TTIP) will make this whole situation much worse. If CETA is passed (there are some constitutional challenges from Germany right now), and Nestle is denied rights to water, Nestle will be able to sue us.  Right now Coke and Pepsi can sue (with an ISDS) because they're American companies. But Nestle's European. CETA is not yet signed, so they can't sue yet. There's not enough public understanding of how CETA works and how damaging it will be.

Legislation has been Dismantled:

The National Water Act of 1970 handed power to the provinces, so most activist work needs to be done at the provincial level. Federally, Environment Canada's water budget is starved. There's a loophole in the Fisheries Act that allows the government to essentially designate lakes in order to allow dumping in them. About four years ago, under Harper, bill C-38 gutted the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and bill C-45 removed protection for 95% of our lakes and rivers originally protected under the Navigable Water Protection Act (which was originally drafted in 1881!). These moves were on a directive from the Energy Industry.

Our Jobs Shouldn't Destroy our Lives and our Future:

Our manufacturing used to be 26% of GDP, and now it's 11% because our jobs have moved overseas. We're turning to our natural resources for jobs, but it's having a disastrous effect. 11 million litres of toxic waste are leeching into water every day around the Alberta tar sands. Alberta will be first water-insecure province. The Energy East Pipeline would cross 3,000 waterways and put the drinking water of 5 million Canadians at risk. For the past 30 years, pipelines in Canada have averaged three breaks per day. It's not a matter of if they'll break, but when. BC and Alberta are fracking and mining due to a move to public-private partnerships (PPPs). Suez and Veolia, water 'servicing' corporations profiting off human need, argue that once we're in a PPP agreement, then they must be compensate if any municipality breaks their contract with them. There's also serious issues with allowing water trading (already started in Alberta), water pollution trading (euphemistically called 'water quality trading'), and water exporting. We already export bottled water, all in plastic, to the tune of close to 465 billion litres of bottles a year.

Politicians are Acting Cowardly:

This is a global fight. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, CEO of Nestle, thinks the human right to water is ridiculous. He's also the advisor to the World Bank Water Resources Agenda 30/30 that delivers water to poorer people worldwide. This is a conflict of interest, and an abominable abuse of power. It's also a local fight (that's being watched across the pond). Nestle pays less than $15 per day for the water they take in Aberfoyle. 11,000 people of the Six Nations have no access to running water. Two-thirds of First Nations have been under drinking water advisories here in the past few years. It's a travesty that's largely being ignored.

Provincial politicians "clearly don't know what they're doing." They just want to raise the fees attached to taking the water, which will have a negligible effect on a huge corporation like Nestle. This is our water, and Nestle needs to leave this community.

Federally, Trudeau had some positives in his budget. He added a lot to water and waste water services in First Nations communities and into the fisheries an oceans, but he didn't increase allotments to Environment Canada. If they don't undo the damage by reinstated the gutted bills, it'll be as if Harper is still in office. Trudeau launched consultations on those acts instead of reinstating them because the oil and water industries are pushing back. We must tell MPs that they have to fight for this for us.

This is all Possible!!:

"Boiling Point is a cry from my heart to yours." We have to abandon the erroneous belief that Canada has lots of water. We need a federal plan to protect our groundwater. We need to ban pipelines, fracking, and bottled water. We need justice for First Nations. We need a new water ethic that overrides all policies involving water use or that has an impact on water (agriculture, trade deals, etc.). Water is a public trust. It must not be allowed to be taken piece by piece.

Oscar Olivera was leader of first fight in the water wars in Bolivia. Bechtel privatized water and tripled the price and fined anyone capturing rainwater. People fought back and got Bechtel to leave. He explained his dedication with this line: "I would rather die of a bullet than thirst." This is similar to Mike Mercredi's struggle right here. He lives with the tar sands, and when children swim in lakes nearby, they get covered in sores and cysts. He says, "It would be kinder to come in with guns and kill them quickly."

At Site 41, near Barrie, people fought a dump being scheduled on top of an aquifer of exceptionally clean water. In the spring of 2011, Mayors were ready to go ahead with it for the tax money. Equipment was moved in, but First Nations women set up a peace camp and held prayers on the road in front of traffic. They were able to stall the equipment all summer until the frost made the work impossible. Their arrest was ordered, and the community was split three ways on the issue. Pro-dump, pro-water, and undecided. Then one of the leaders of the pro-dump group was presented, by his grandchildren, with the opposition's sign. They pleaded with him, and he announced his job description had changed to being a steward of the water.

THE LAST STRAW (my two cents on activism):

This event was covered by Guelph Today news, and the Council of Canadians site, where both report a 'packed hall' or a 'big crowd'. The thing is, it wasn't all that packed. I was worried about getting a seat, but there were many to choose from. Papers like to suggest that this is important news because everyone who's anyone was there, but in reality this is really important news because so few were there. So few people, particularly younger people (I felt like I was younger than most there), are concerned or "woke" enough to come to a talk or rally or write their MPP or try to fix this vital and life-threatening problem in any concrete way. Writing about small numbers won't sell papers, but it's an important part of reporting the problem. Hopefully it was truly packed in Toronto last night.

When I talk to students about what effective activism looks like, they often focus on people who became famous. Martin Luther King Jr. is a name they hold up as the model of an activist that changed the world. But then activism becomes something far too difficult for an ordinary person to do. How do we possibly get thousands of people to follow us? How do we write and deliver all those speeches? It's not in the skill set of the best of us.

I tell them to keep in mind that MLK didn't start the civil rights movement. He was there at a high-point in the movement, when things dramatically turned a corner. But, and he's said as much, the movement started decades earlier with thousands of people whose names you've never heard and wouldn't recognize. He happened to be the last straw that broke the backs of a racist system. He didn't make it happen. The people who paved the way before him, each one of them were absolutely necessary for the country to galvanize around him. And we never know when we'll hit that corner, when we could be that last straw.

We have to add ourselves to the numbers. We can't do this for fame or fortune; we can't expect that we will be the ones to save the world. We have to work on these issues knowing we likely won't be known or remembered for our work, but it's simply the right thing to do. That people are suffering, literally dying of thirst, so a corporation can increase its profits by duping the public is a travesty. Barlow said the fight is on our doorstep, but I say it's right in our home. This world is where we live, and Nestle needs to get the fuck out.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Irony of Advocating for A/C in Schools

This was a hot start to the school year. I taught a few classes with sweat dripping off my face as I spoke animatedly and enthusiastically about my courses. It was uncomfortable to be sure. And it was no better for students staring back at me all pink-faced and glistening. It's hard to learn when you're uncomfortable.

But when I discussed teachers who are advocating for A/C in the classroom (and a Premier who agrees with them), my grade tens were keen enough to pick up on the irony of it all, on the paradox created. Our excessive use of fossil fuels (and factory farms) has increased the global temperature such that we're seeing hotter summers, and we can expect them to increase in intensity in the years following. And this solution of adding A/C to all the schools will make the privileged few more comfortable in the short term, but it will actually exacerbate the problem for the many and around the world.

It's worse than a band-aid solution. A better analogy might be to rip the crap out of a mosquito bite (which we can also expect more of) to get some immediate relief and then put a band-aid on the bloody mess we created, which still itches but now it hurts too. It's a self-wounding-band-aid solution.

There are some immediate solutions that use less energy. I gave up time instead of money and went to school shortly after six every morning to open my classroom windows and those of the room across the hall to blow out the hot air. I tried to convince the custodians to turn off half the hall lights (emergency lighting only), but I got nowhere on that one. There are also more innovative solutions like running a fan through a cooler full of ice. You still have to make the ice block, but that might not take significantly more energy if there's room in your freezer for a large tupperware container (or old milk carton) of water.

But this attitude has to change dramatically if we're going to get out of this alive. Everything will have to shift to acclimatize to the new normals in temperature. Some teachers are asking to be allowed to dismiss students on very hot days. That could be a nightmare for working parents having to pick up kids suddenly, but perhaps we could allow siestas during particularly hot afternoons. It might be the case that we really utilize a daylight-savings-type system where schools start a couple hours earlier from late May to early October. Or maybe, once students all have their own computers that they carry back and forth to school, classrooms could keep their windows open at night without fear of computers being stolen. The schools are all alarmed anyway.

My point is that we can't keep looking at old solutions that are part of the problem to fix this situation. We have to develop more innovated strategies. And part of that is just getting used to it - just plain adapting to our changing environment. People who don't have A/C in their homes have an easier time in hot schools and outside because their bodies have been able to get used to the change. See here and here: "People who spend a great deal of time outdoors become 'outdoor acclimatized.' These persons are affected less by heat or cold extremes because their bodies have adjusted to the outdoor environments." And here:  "It takes one to two hours a day in hot temperatures to acclimate properly. You don't feel the stress of the heat. You feel more comfortable."

The more we add A/C everywhere, the more we'll need A/C to cope. We're starting down a spiral that will keep us unable to manage in the outdoors. Out of all possible solutions for the sticky mess we wade through at the beginning and end of each school year, adding air conditioning to schools is the worse.

Fixing French Immersion

The Agenda with Steve Paikin had a segment on French Immersion in the schools this week. The panel raised some interesting points but neglected a few issues.

A Bit of a Summary (skip down for more interesting bits)

The guests were Caroline Alfonso, an education reporter for the Globe & Mail (with a young child in immersion), Stuart Miller, the director of education (in Halton), John Lorinc, a journalist with older kids who went through immersion, and Mary Cruden the President of the Canadian Parents for French. Despite the fact that the show is titled, "The Problems with French Immersion," the journalist seemed the only critic of the current program with some concerns that led to one of his kids changing streams.  Stuart raised some issues with the cost to run the program born of the fact that some schools are left with only four or five kids in the English stream, and with the unequal access to the program. It's costly to run a class with such small numbers. But elsewhere he praised the educational benefits of a second language.

Enrollment in immersion programs is increasing across Canada, and Paikin asked the panel why so many parents want their kids in immersion. Caroline and Mary suggested parents want to have an extra tool in their tool basket, a leg up on the competition to give the kids an edge. Paikin offered that it might have something to do with being a proud Canadian, as was Trudeau-the-elder's dream almost fifty years ago, but nobody bit at that one. From this panel's perspective, parents put their kids in immersion to get them ahead of the curve. The fact that many students don't make it to the end, didn't seem to phase the guests. They believe that early intervention is key to greater success in the long run.

According to Stuart, immersion students don't do significantly better or worse in the long run, however an article in Macleans disagrees (but without links or references to see the studies):
Working memory, used in activities like math, is improved, especially among those aged five to seven. Even reading scores in English are significantly higher for French immersion students than non-immersion students, according to a 2004 study, which noted the higher socio-economic background of French immersion students alone could not account for the stark difference.... [However,] turns out native English speakers living outside Canada’s sole francophone province are rather poor at keeping up their French skills as they get older. In 1996, 15 per cent of 15- to 19-year-old anglophones outside Quebec could conduct a conversation in both of Canada’s official languages. Fast forward 15 years and the bilingualism rate for 30- to 35-year-olds in 2011 was eight per cent.
If the results are accurate and statistically significant, then I still wonder if the immersion program itself is having the most significant effect on those results. Higher income might not be the primary variable, but students with parents who, regardless their income, advocate for them more, who push them more and who, therefore, might want them in immersion, will likely have kids who are higher achievers even if immersion weren't available. I'd like to see a study compare parents with immersion in the area and parents without, not parents of immersion and non-immersion kids in one school. Ask many questions about their attitude towards schooling, their own education, and their income, and then, compare results against the success of their kids on a general, comprehensive test to see if parental attitude towards education affects kids more than the immersion program.

Because the panel raised one important issue about the way the program is actually running...

Teacher Shortages

It's hard to get good teachers who are also bilingual. Stuart explained that, "Qualified and quality may be two different things," and cited stats that 80% of principals struggle to find quality French teachers who can speak the language fluently AND are proficient in the subject matter. If they're not francophone, prospective teachers have to keep up their French in university courses, but then take their teachable subject courses on top of that, all the science or math or history credits required to teach those subjects. It places an extra burden on the shoulders of teachers training to be immersion teachers who teach core subjects in a second language.

John spoke of a problem with many unqualified educators in the French stream; teachers have to teach multiple subject matters they're not qualified for, or else they're not strong enough in French to speak all day and they end up switching to English during most classes. Immersion students can miss out on some better classes with teachers stronger in the field in the English stream.

The shortage of good teachers is also a factor when students begin to struggle. There was much disagreement over whether or not it's a problem or a benefit not to have parents with a command of French, but John is clear that it creates an extra barrier for children with homework that can't be supported by parents at home. It creates an inequity if some parents can afford a tutor. Others thought that, if a student is struggling with the work, it should be the teacher that supports them at school. But, in my experience, that's just not the reality of some situations. Some teachers would add supports in English to ensure the students didn't get behind, but others were adamant that it would harm the integrity of the immersion program. I was lucky enough to tap into a group of parents who had copies of an English math workbook so I could help my daughter to understand the math concepts at home. But it was all very clandestine; we were sneak-learning the subject content. Learning shouldn't feel so weirdly criminal. But without that, it can be really unclear whether the student is having a problem with subject matter (math) or with the language of instruction. How do we know which part needs remedial help?

Mary explained that what is the parent's responsibility is to ensure that kids get authentic experiences in French in the community. I wouldn't know where to find that in my own area, but the Ministry developed to connect parents to French experiences, something I didn't know about until I saw the show. Unfortunately, most of the experiences are in bigger cities, adding to the divide between families of means and those without. I played tapes of French songs in my house from the time my kids were born, but I've never encountered a French experience in my community. That's a different kettle of fish.

Inequality and Self-Segregation

Is immersion elitist? Some suggested that the program isn't elitist, it's just that some parents act like it is. According to Mary the Ministry FSL framework includes students with special needs. The Ministry says they will get support they need. She insists that it's a myth that some children are more suited to FI than other, and that's not supported by research. If teachers identify the learning issues, they find students will have it whether they're in immersion or not.  She says we can't allow quiet conversations about the student who isn't suited to the program rather than actually supporting the struggling learning. FSL classrooms should reflect the demographic of all kids in that board. But Stuart added that this is all related to teacher shortage. Immersion should have the same supports, but they don't have Spec Ed teachers who speak French. All support is delivered in English.

To me, that the intention is to offer it to everyone is irrelevant when it's only offered to a few. That it's a scarce resource makes it desirable. The fact that some people have an easier time getting in than others, creates an inequity at the intake. The fact that some people have an easier time helping their children because of their own French background or their ability to afford a tutor and trips to Ottawa, creates inequity throughout. Any parent can cut an apple into sections to talk about fractions with their kids if they're struggling with the concept, but not every parent can help with the French instruction when their child hits a wall.

There's also an underlying sense, as Mary suggested, that students should be a "good fit" for the program, that it's really NOT for everyone, and some students are just not suited to it. How can it possibly be said to be offered equally if it's overtly stated that there's a type of student that should be admitted. And, as some suggested, there's not a significant effort to help struggling students. Students who have difficulties with French are coaxed to drop down to the English stream.

And this is the part that starts to feels pretty slimy. Immersion can be a way to get kids away from "undesirable influences" that might include students with behavioural issues, new Canadians, and students less inclined towards school. That's an unspoken piece of all this. Some parents might be streaming not for the mental benefits, but for the peer group. They don't want any weird kids in the class next to their darlings. Parents are more overt about this in some circles, and we all need to be reminded of the dangers of this line of reasoning. I would much rather my kid talk to all sorts of different types of people in a classroom than have aspiration for Harvard. That's what makes for a healthy society. Too many are forgetting that. It's like Chomsky was on about a while back - we've shifted from a mindset of solidarity to competition, and it's absolutely essential that we make the effort to shift back!

Stuart adds that there's a perception that the French stream is more rigorous but he denies that to be the case. There's a concern with the kids who are behind. There has to be better supports for students struggling in French without taking them out of French. Caroline suggested that the idea that the English stream is seen as a place for kids with behavioural needs is a mentality of parents and of teachers who encourage French as if the English program is inferior, which needs to change. John thought that kids should get into the program randomly to reduce the elitism of the program, but I don't see that as a viable solution. It would just cause different problems.

What They Didn't Say

They didn't talk about the overall results of immersion for Canada as a country:

When our cultural norms change, it can take a while for education to match it. When we were finally required to introduce people of a variety of ethnicities and genders in our history courses (surprisingly recently), that sent me scrambling for new resources because I had been teaching what I had been taught in university: all about dead, white men. It will be a few years and a lot of work for teachers to overcome our own narrow education of old.

But we've had immersion in our grade schools for many decades now. It's surprising to me that it seems we haven't actually produced a significantly more bilingual country, at least not significant enough to adequately teach the next generation. I would have liked to hear them address why immersion students aren't still fluent after university, and why there aren't more of them in education? If our goal is a bilingual country, and the middle-aged early adopters have forgotten all their French, we're obviously not going about it the right way.

They also didn't discuss one facet of the student experience that is my greatest concern:

Full disclosure: I teach in a high school that offers immersion, and I live an area that offers immersion at the local primary school, but I actually tried to have my first little one go to a different school. I discovered that parents can apply to have their child go to an immersion school far from home, but they can't apply to go to a non-immersion school. What I saw happening at the local school and in my neighbourhood was the development of a strikingly divisive student body, and I didn't want my kids to have any part of that.

Because of the attitudes of some teachers and parents who see the French program as superior, the students are living that artificial hierarchy. From what I've seen, they begin to treat one another differently as early as grade 1. It's the English Muffins vs the French Fries. Some students who struggle in the French, and don't get adequate supports, are loath to shift "down" to the English because of the stigma involved. That there's a palpable stigma that comes with being unilingual in a school that offers immersion is a serious problem. Schools should be about opening doors for kids, of breaking barriers and fostering a sense of equality, not arrogantly suggesting that one type of kid is better than the rest.  That attitude has no place in our school systems. But there it is. We've fought so hard to divorce ourselves from any notion of class divisions in our land of the free, yet we've created that very experience for our six-year-olds.

I mentioned on Facebook recently that a surprising number of my academic students didn't hand in their first assignment in my class this term. A former student commented to the effect that it's probably just the English stream students. The implication is that French Immersion students always get their work done on time and English kids are slackers. This prejudice doesn't go away after they leave school, even as they lose their French. They still see a division between them and us that we fostered in grade school.

Schools could help to override this by joining the classes together in each grade for co-operative games and dividing them differently for some classes, like phys ed. There has to be regular integration of the two streams from the first day on. We all promote integration in every other way, except this one. Schools must create an atmosphere of inclusion, and immersion schools have to work harder at this one.

Schools have become competitive in other ways with parents suggesting their child wants to take a subject they have no interest in just to get them into a specific school.  This further divides student bodies and divides communities. I want kids walking to the school down the street together instead of half of them being bussed across town for a special program that's rarely all that special. Some teachers promote their school, not just as another great school in the region, but the ultimate learning environment, without acknowledging the problems with this type of abject loyalty. I love my school to bits, but we have to keep an eye on the broader arena to ensure excellent education across the region, and country, and world. Solidarity is key.

Can it Be Fixed?

If we agree that learning a second language is good for kids's brains, and if our goal is to have a bilingual country, then everyone should learn French in school from JK on. When kids struggle with learning math, we don't stream them in such a way that they don't have to take it again until grade 4. They get lots of extra help to meet the standards required by the curriculum by the end of the year.  It's a serious problem to acknowledge that something is really good for kids' brains, but allow parents to opt out. It's an even more serious problem that some parents want their kids in the program but there are not enough available spots. Imagine if your kids couldn't learn math for a couple years because there's just not enough places for them. If we agree it's really good for kids, then we have to make it happen for all our kids.

And it has to start at junior kindergarten to take advantage of the younger sponge-like ability to learn a new language. According to recent studies, the optimal time to learn a second language is in the first two years of life, and the decline in the ability to learn one can start as early as age five. Grade one is way too late. We need more immersion in the early grades and in daycares where they're talking more and writing less (and no dictée quite yet, please), and then we can work on maintenance throughout the rest of the grades. The early years will help with the natural acquisition of verb tenses and pronunciation, and the later years can focus on developing better writing ability.

But I advocate for this instead of half day immersion in the later grades. If I were queen of the province, and I knew we couldn't provide enough French teachers to accommodate all students from grades 1 to 12 (because we didn't actually create a significant bilingual population...yet), then I'd move the available teachers to JK and SK classrooms for half days at all schools, and I'd offer incentives for daycares to have at least one French ECE on board, and for summer camps to have at least half the counsellors speaking French. I'd have rather my children played tag and learned how to canoe in French than have learned long division and how to memorize lists of words.

If the important thing is ensuring the best education for everyone, and we don't have the expertise to do it fully, then we have to offer a partial program to everyone rather than a full program for a select few. But from this panel discussion, and from discussions with students and parents, I don't get the impression that the best education system for all our kids is what's most important to people. What really matters is that some people get a little more than others. As they said right from the start, they want a leg up, an extra edge. That's a bigger problem of promoting the individual at the expense of the community, and it has to be ameliorated.

With full immersion in younger grades and only one class a term in later grades, students would still be able work towards a certificate, not through taking the right number of hours of French each year, but by having their fluency tested at the end. That would give them the incentive to maintain their French speaking and writing ability throughout high school at after school programs or just with conversations with peers - who would all have taken French since they were three or four.  It wouldn't be an extra, a burden, if it were learned well at a young age when all children are primed for language acquisition.

This would reduce problems with teachers who are less proficient in other subject areas in higher grades. And it would reduce the competition for an extra goodie for the select or lucky few. And, over another generation or two, we might undo the unsavoury class-divisions we've unwittingly established.