Celebrating 50 years of French Immersion

Popular education program got its start in Coquitlam in 1968

Thousands of French Immersion students across B.C. and in School District 43 owe a debt of gratitude to francophone settlers in Coquitlam whose determination brought the language program to B.C.

Thanks to that first class that taught mostly francophone students school in 1968, thousands of British Columbians are now bilingual, and 50,000 are enrolled in French Immersion in the province today — 3,800 in SD43 alone.

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And for one kindergarten teacher, Anita Bell, who was a student in that first class at Alderson elementary, learning in French was a way to develop knowledge in her heritage language and led to her career in education.

Her parents, Fern and Cecile Bouvier, were francophone speakers and, together with other Coquitlam parents, wanted French language education for their children.

“They knew there was a French Immersion program for English speakers in Quebec and they wanted to bring it here,” said Bell, whose dad was also a teacher in School District 43, as well as a founder of Place des Arts.

In her cozy classroom at Porter Street elementary, the walls are decorated with art work and lessons, all in French, and a whiteboard is marked up with French words such as “mon chat,” which are examples of things loved by her students.

It’s only February, but the little five-year-olds have 100% comprehension in Bell’s French-language teaching, although they are still learning to read and write.

Their progress is impressive and a testament to children’s ability to learn a new language.

“It still floors me, and the parents come and say ‘wow,’ Bell said.

On Feb. 5, School District 43 celebrated 50 years of French Immersion with a special event at Pitt River middle school and a presentation was made at the board of education meeting. As well, a contest for French Immersion students is also underway and a reunion for French Immersion students is being planned for May.

Bell would like to see more French Immersion classes in the district, although admitting it’s a challenge to find teachers, and thinks all children should have the opportunity to go to school in French, Canada’s other official language.

“Why not give them the shot, it gives them many more options,” Bell said.

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