Archive for the ‘Public Consultation’ Category


The proposed plan to change French-language education by eliminating French Immersion in New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools is facing a firestorm of resistance.  An initial mid-January 2023 live-streamed media conference announcing ‘public consultations’ was cut-short after 29 minutes. Then tempers and emotions flared up at the first meeting of the four scheduled ‘public consultations’ which hardened into a wall of opposition from January 17 to 25, 2023 in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton.

Tampering with French Immersion in New Brunswick and elsewhere is a perilous undertaking in K-12 education. It now appears that “touching the third rail” in that province may claim its latest victims.

N.B.’s French Immersion advocacy group, Canadian Parents for French, led by Chris Collins, not only mobilized parents and teachers, but succeeded in disrupting the planned ‘consultation’ management process. It was exposed as a rather ineffective attempt to apply the Delphi Technique strategy of seating in circles, designed to contain and diffuse the dissent.

As a strategy for managing ‘public consultations,’ popularly known as the “World Café,” it essentially crashed and burned. “Manufacturing consent” can and does backfire, especially when utilized in thinly-veiled fashion to ‘ram through’ school reforms or facilitate school facilities changes such as school closures.

Organizers in New Brunswick were totally unprepared for the crowd, unable to answer fundamental questions, and a harried-looking Minister went on the defensive, first threatening to “dismiss” the unruly crowd, then conceding that, if not enough French teachers could be found, it would be started in grade 1 and delayed at the kindergarten level. By the end of the consultations, he was now insisting it was “not cast in stone.”

N.B. Education Minister Bill Hogan has been dealt a bad hand. Appointed in October 2022 to succeed Dominic Cardy, a confident, fluently-bilingual public performer, he finds himself fronting a massively unpopular French language education initiative which is opposed by as many as three out of four New Brunswickers. What’s worse is that a rushed implementation is planned for September 2023 and the initial 22-odd Language Learning Opportunities (LLO) pilot programs were never properly assessed in terms of their effectiveness in improving the fluency and proficiency of students.


Hogan and Deputy Minister John McLaughlin survived the initial skewering on January 17 at the Gowan Brae Golf and Country Club, but the Minister was essentially mobbed at subsequent public meetings. Crowds arrived early, challenged the “world cafe’ format and took to the microphone to denounce the plan.

The Minister and his senior staff were left scrambling under the glare of extensive media coverage. All the signs point to either a full retreat or an impending implementation disaster. After two years of planning and almost two dozen pilot projects, how did to come apart so fast?

The sacking of Cardy deprived Premier Blaine Higgs of his most effective and persuasive communicator and the Department never recovered.  Without Cardy fronting the project, the remaining trust dissolved among French-speaking New Brunswickers as well as the province’s most articulate Anglophone bilingualism advocates, French immersion parents and graduates.

Political skeletons sometimes get released from their closets at the most inopportune times. Few remembered Blaine Higgs’ 1989 Confederation of Regions (CORNB) leadership campaign pledge to eliminate immersion until it resurfaced again in a politically-damaging October 2022 CBC News NB commentary.  From that point on, the fix was in on the high-risk policy proposal.

Education Minister Hogan and his senior officials have broken all the rules in the textbook on how to implement successful education reforms.  It’s all neatly synthesized in one of my favourite sources, David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s 1995 modern classic, Tinkering Toward Utopia. It begins by taking stock of previous initiatives and learning from the past.

In the case of New Brunswick and French immersion, that means asking whether any other Canadian province has ever succeeded in eliminating the program and learning from past mistakes. The prime example would be former Minister Kelly Lamrock’s politically bruising 2008 attempt to delay the entry point to grade 6, then grade 3, eventually abandoned in the face of fierce opposition. Then, as now, it was all based upon the claim that the province was, according to Maclean’s Magazine “failing miserably at graduating bilingual students.”

Education reform initiatives proceed, in stages, from “policy talk” to “policy action” to “implementation.” In the education sector, changes falter mostly during implementation. The key reasons are: short timelines, lack of leadership capacity, or insufficient human or resource support to make it work. Implementation is much slower and more complex and governments tend to move on to other priorities. That explains why evaluation of initiatives, including data-gathering, falls far too often by the wayside.

Overcoming the gravitational pull of the status quo is not easy and, in the words of American education psychologist Robert Evans, most initially embrace “change” with as much enthusiasm as they do “changing a baby.” Inspiring and skillful leadership is required to “overcome the initial sense of loss” and convey a sense of renewed purpose going forward.

Introducing an upgraded universal French language program in place of French immersion is unlikely to work. With an election ahead in the fall of 2024, it all looks to be based upon ‘election cycles’ rather than ‘policy change cycles.’ Even if the change in French language program gets authorized, it will be far too rushed in its implementation, half-baked in conception, and impossible to staff, given the dire shortage of French teachers with the requisite competencies.

Public engagement is quite distinct from ‘public consultation’ and thrives under the right conditions and requires an open approach and a genuine commitment to breaking the mold. Being open, transparent, accountable and responsive does require unique, well calibrated skills. In the education leadership field, it often involves unlearning ingrained practices and habits. Finding a common cause, sizing-up the conditions, leading with questions rather than answers, and meeting groups where they are all critical ingredients.

New Brunswick’s disastrous public consultation taught us a fundamental lesson about engaging citizens and building support for reforms. Canadian ‘public engagement’ specialist Don Lenihan (Middle Ground Engagement, Ottawa) now calls it “deliberative public engagement.”  It may work in New Brunswick if the provincial government realizes that it’s time to start again, from ground zero, to find an acceptable solution to raising the numbers of bilingual graduates from New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools.

Why is French Immersion the “third rail” in Canadian education politics?  What sparked the New Brunswick government to tempt fate by proposing its replacement with a universal upgraded core French program? Why did the “Delphi Technique” attract attention and ultimately provoke a backlash? Will the setback completely stall further reform efforts? Is there a better way of finding a constructive path forward?

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