Nunavut capital’s École des Trois-Soleils fêtes its 15th anniversary
“A school is not just walls, a floor and a roof. It is a place where you grow”
With its throat singing, heartfelt speeches, songs—and huge birthday cake, the celebration of École des Trois Soleils’ 15th year in Iqaluit was a joyful occasion for Nunavut’s only French-language school, also the most northerly French-language school in the Arctic world.
École des Trois-Soleils’ principal François Ouellette says resiliency and openness define his school—qualities that were in evidence during the April 27 festivities.
To start off the occasion, elder Alacie Joamie, surrounded by students dressed in yellow silapaks, arranged the qulliq on the stage. As she prepared the traditional lamp, Joamie helped some students to roll up Arctic cotton for the wick, offering them kisses for their efforts.
Later in the program, a song and much applause honoured student Diane Garson, now in Grade 12, who is set to graduate from École des Trois-Soleils this year: Garson, 17, a Nunavut Land Claims Beneficiary and the first at Trois-Soleils to have attended the school from kindergarten to Grade 12, learned that the $1,000 scholarship given to all École des Trois-Soleils graduates (nine, to date) will bear her name in the future.
“A school is not just walls, a floor and a roof. It is a place where you grow. And who has grown up here? Our students and children, those like Diane, all of our children, like my son, like those who have left us, and those who are still here, and those who will be here some day,” Ouellette told the gathering of more than 100 at the school.
Since its opening December 2001, École des Trois-Soleils—whose name was suggested by then-student Sarah McNair-Landry of Iqaluit after the Arctic atmospheric phenomenon that produces three suns in the sky—has grown from 35 children to 90, with five full-time teachers.
Today, roughly a third of the school’s students are Inuit. Among the Trois-Soleils students, parents and staff, you can find some from southern Canada as well as others from countries as far away from Nunavut as Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Syria and South Korea.
Trois-Soleils now offers a high school program as well as a French immersion program for four-year-olds coming into kindergarten.
The diversity of the school population has grown as well. When Ouellette arrived at the school eight years ago, there were only a couple of children in the first and second grades who had been born in Iqaluit.
Now more than half can say they were born in the city, he told Nunatsiaq News.
With that growth and stability, there’s also a renewed determination to defend Inuit and French language and culture—breaking the pattern of educational assimilation for both, he said.
But these sunny times at École des Trois-Soleils come after some challenges, which have included tension between parents, teachers and school administrators, and with the Iqaluit District Education Authority and the Government of Nunavut.
A court case launched in 2015 by parent and lawyer Doug Garson and the Commission scolaire francophone du Nunavut school board said the GN had failed to respond to the school board’s demands for more resources at Trois-Soleils and called on the GN to live up to obligations under Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
That’s the section that guarantees minority language educational rights to French-speaking communities outside of Quebec, in order to help those communities preserve their language.
Garson said the lawsuit is still active. But, reached on the day after Trois-Soleils’ anniversary celebration, Garson was mainly feeling more pride about his daughter, who plans to attend the University of Victoria next year.
For now, Trois-Soleils, which receives money through Heritage Canada, is the only French school in Nunavut.
In Iqaluit, about 4.8 per cent of 8,000 residents, so about 400, speak French, but this percentage drops to less than two per cent outside the city throughout Nunavut.
However, if there were, for example, 30 French-speaking children in another Nunavut community, such as Rankin Inlet, then the school board would look to establish another a classroom for them or even a school.
“We would have an obligation to do that,” said the Commission scolaire’s interim director, Michel Potvin.
Although Trois-Soleils is eyed with jealously by some English and Inuktitut speakers in Iqaluit who don’t have an Inuktitut-language school, you can only send your child to Trois-Soleils if French is your mother tongue, or you or the siblings of your child attended elementary school in French.
That’s outlined in Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Human Rights.
However, until last year, the school used to make exceptions to that section to offer French instruction to students who, for example, had a French-speaking grandparent.
That’s no longer possible following a GN directive which tightened up the school’s admission criteria.