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Education Minister Dominic Cardy, seen during the New Brunswick leaders debate in Moncton on Sept. 9, 2014, confirmed a dozen schools will begin using alternative methods to teach French next fall.

Marc Grandmaison/The Canadian Press

A plan to test new teaching programs as a possible alternative to French immersion in New Brunswick schools has once again stoked the language debate in Canada’s only bilingual province.

While Education Minister Dominic Cardy disputed a media report that he planned to “scrap” the immersion program, he confirmed Wednesday a dozen schools will begin using alternative methods to teach French next fall – as part of a process that could eventually replace French immersion. The potential overhaul of the bilingual school system has sparked strong reaction from parents across the province.

In New Brunswick, where the politics of language extend into all areas of government services, French immersion has become the target of critics who say it creates a two-tier school system where special needs students are streamed into non-immersion classes.

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Mr. Cardy said any changes to the education system would be gradual, but acknowledged the system as constructed isn’t working as well as it should. Too many children graduate from New Brunswick high schools unable to speak French at a conversational level, he said, and families from rural or low-income areas tend to be excluded from French immersion programs.

The leader of the provincial People’s Alliance party, which argues official bilingualism costs the province too much money, said French immersion was a “massive failure”and the program needs to end. Kris Austin, whose party has propped up the minority Progressive Conservative government, also said operating health-care and education systems in both official languages is unsustainable for New Brunswick.

Instead, he’s in favour of offering government services in French in areas where there’s a francophone majority and English in predominantly anglophone areas. French, he said, should be taught the same as other subjects such as math or history, without creating a separate program that generates inequity in the school system.

“Part of the problem with politics in this province is we’ve become so oversensitive to certain issues. If you talk about bilingualism in New Brunswick, all the sudden you’re this bad person,” Mr. Austin said. “All we’re saying is we have to do this in a way that makes sense fiscally and socially.”

The Education Minister accused Mr. Austin of inflaming divisions between French and English speakers in the province. Political fights over language have long held the province back when it comes to educational reform, and it needs to stop, he said.

“New Brunswick has had a deep, frozen, cold war for centuries between anglophones and francophones, and we don’t talk about how best to address that,” Mr. Cardy said. “Any politicians who try to inject language and cultural divisions into this aren’t helpful, and they’re holding our province back.”

The debate over bilingualism is an old one in New Brunswick, which became a two-language province in 1969 when it introduced its Official Languages Act. About a third of the province is French-speaking, mostly from Acadian origins.

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Language remains a sore spot for some New Brunswickers, who feel they’re passed over for government jobs because they can’t speak French. A group of community and business leaders recently started a campaign to counter that negative perception, arguing in favour of bilingualism’s economic benefits when it comes to attracting call centre jobs, trade with Quebec and international students.

In October, Mr. Austin’s party threatened to topple the minority government over a report from the province’s language commissioner that the People’s Alliance claimed required every nursing home worker in the province to be bilingual. Mr. Austin said bilingual requirements are also costing New Brunswick desperately needed paramedics, who are leaving for jobs in other provinces.

Changes to the province’s French immersion program have been rumoured to be coming for some time. Mr. Cardy released a green paper on education in New Brunswick last summer that said the immersion system is inherently unfair. Despite 50 years as a bilingual province, it’s unacceptable that just half of New Brunswick’s graduates can speak French at a conversational level, he said.

New Brunswick Auditor-General Kim MacPherson, meanwhile, says the province’s schools are failing to hit performance targets because of frequent reforms to the education system – including three changes to the French immersion program in a decade and five education strategies over the past 15 years.

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