Where three suns shine brightly

The most northerly French-language school in the world sits high on a hill in Iqaluit, overlooking Frobisher Bay


High on a hill overlooking Frobisher Bay sits Iqaluit’s spectacular new French-language school, École les Trois-Soleils.

Named after an Arctic atmospheric phenomenon that produces the illusion of three suns in the sky, this school is unique: it’s the most northerly French-language school in the world.

At École les Trois-Soleils, French is taught as a first language. It is the language kids speak to each other, in and out of class.

The school is the only one of its kind in Nunavut. It also, without a doubt, has more space per student than any school in the territory.

The $4 million-plus school opened last December, with 45 students enrolled from pre-kindergarten to Grade 9.

Money to pay for construction came mostly from a fund maintained by the federal heritage department. Now that it’s built, the school is under the jurisdiction of Nunavut’s department of education.

The new school, with its ample facilities and breathtaking views, is a large improvement over the French students’ former cramped classrooms in Nakasuk School, in downtown Iqaluit.

École les Trois-Soleils has room to accommodate 100 students up to Grade 12, so there’s no crowding yet in the classrooms, computer room, or library.

“Yes, we are very well-equipped,” says principal Denis Dragon, a recent arrival to Iqaluit from Manitoba. “However, there are some things we don’t have, such as a school yard.”

At break time, kids play out in the school’s driveway and down the slope leading to the bay.

Inside the school, the atmosphere is quiet and tranquil. A person entering the school when classes are in session might even wonder where the students are.

“They’re in their classes, studying,” the school secretary says.

The school has four teachers who work with kids of different grades. There are 10 kid in pre-kindergarden and kindergardern, there are 16 kids in Grades 1 to 3, 12 in Grades 4 to 5, and seven in Grades 6 to 9.

In one class, a French-language monitor works with a small group of kids on their language skills.

Marie-Claude Mantha is in Iqaluit as part of a federally funded program to bring French-language classroom assistants to French-language classes outside of Quebec.

Mantha’s Grade ones are enthusiastically filling in the blanks of a story, called l’été au chalet with words that end in “-et.”

Across the hall, the Grades 2 and 3 students have written a few sentences about their weekend and are illustrating their short stories with a drawing.

Some of the kids write well, with few errors. Others have more problems. All seem to speak French pretty well.

Dragon works only half-time as principal. He spends every afternoon working one-on-one with students who need extra help.

In another classroom, students work diligently on their assignments. The oldest group of students holds a draw to see who gets to play with certain board games during recess.

Meanwhile, visiting students from Aqsarniit Middle School who study French as a second language are in the library. Its shelves still have lots of empty space.

Despite its space and resources, not every schoolchild can go to this school — it’s open only to kids who have one parent who speaks French and who also attended French school.

About 25 per cent of the kids at the school have one Inuk parent. And some kids, when they begin school at the age of four, don’t speak French very well.

“The younger they are, the easier it is for them to learn the language,” Dragon said.

Inuktitut is not taught at École Trois-Soleils although Dragon says the plan is to introduce Inuktitut instruction within two years.

Several years ago the idea of integrating an Inuktitut first-language program into the school was circulated, but it never got out of the discussion stage, due to lack of funding.

To maintain contact with Inuit culture and language, the school plans exchanges with kids at Aqsarniit and Joamie Elementary School.

“There is an Inuit presence here,” Dragon says. “The Inuit parents are very involved, and they have expectations with regard to the culture and the language.”

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