SCFPA disappointed francophone school project not included in budget for second straight year

(Herald file photo)

The Société canadienne-française de Prince Albert (French-Canadian Society of Prince Albert, or SCFPA) was disappointed on Budget Day, April 6, with the lack of provision for a new francophone community school in Prince Albert.

The local Fransaskois community  and its partners, which includes seniors groups, the École Valois Parents Council and staff, Métis community members, francophone school board representatives and the Conseil des écoles fransaskoises (CEF) have been working on a viable, realistic and financially solid business plan for the purchase and renovation of Rivier Academy for over two years.

“The message we really want to put through is that the whole French community in Prince Albert is left with this lack of certainty and it’s very frustrating for everyone,”  Estelle Hjertaas, president of the SCFPA, explained.

“We were hoping this would be in the budget last year and now we are another budget later and we still don’t have a yes or no answer,” she added.

The business case and cost analysis for the conversion of Rivier Academy to a citizen-based community school centre was submitted in February 2020 to former Minister of Education Gord Wyant at his request. In March 2019, the Government of Saskatchewan and its Fransaskois school board signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the construction of a francophone school in Prince Albert.

Hjertaas said all they really want is certainty on the situation, and to know if there is a need to provide more information or studies.

The group has also asked to meet with Premier Scott Moe, but has yet to get a response.

“Right now we are just kind of in limbo. We have had communication with (Education) Minister (Dustin) Duncan and that has been great, but we don’t have an answer either way and there’s no clear path forward,” she explained.

Since the 2020 budget, the organization has done even more in-depth research on the project to confirm the reliability of the community business case. The provincial government requested the information to help form a partnership with Heritage Canada and the federal government.

According to Hjertaas, discussions with Heritage Canada had begun before the COVID-19 pandemic and officials had already taken a tour. Ministry of Education officials have also visited the property.

“They were very interested in the idea. So that’s a big frustration,” she said.

She added that it was like they were spinning their wheels.

“If they are going to say yes, or they are looking towards (saying) yes and just need more information and to have the discussion with the federal government, then great. Tell us that, and we will do whatever we can to make sure that happens,” she said. “If the answer is, ‘we are not interested in this at all’ then just tell us that and we can stop spending our time and resources on it.

“We are very clear. That is our preference in terms of  the Rivier project. If there is no chance this is going to happen we just want to know that and then  we’ll move forward.”

The project is work for the entire French community of Prince Albert. Because of the pandemic there are no in person events but certainty is needed.

“We are potentially foregoing opportunities to either purchase or lease better spaces which might not be available in the future because we are hoping that we would all move to Rivier which would be the ideal situation for everyone,”

In a release earlier in April, Hjertaas explained that they have cooperated with the province and met with both Wyant and Duncan. They have also identified new and traditional funding programs but there is still not a clear commitment.

“They have been open to meeting with us we have really appreciated meeting with Minister Duncan, it’s not a criticism of them insomuch it is just it has been two years we need the decision so that the community can have certainty going forward,” she explained.

Hjertaas said that they hope the pandemic will be over soon and they can start in person events.

“For us as a society our spaces are not appropriate so we want to make a decision about finding better spaces and if Rivier is on the table than excellent we will wait for those spaces, if Rivier is off the table than we are going to keep looking at options that we do have as they might come up,”she added.

Since signing an MOU with the CEF in March 2019, which stipulates three new francophone schools to be built by 2023, including one for Prince Albert, the Ministry of Education has only moved ahead with one in Regina in March, 2020.

Hjertaas noted in the release that the file has been on Premier Moe’s desk since well before the budget was tabled and the group reiterated their request to meet with the Premier to explain the economic advantages directly.

“We anticipate that once Premier Moe has seen the financial details of our proposal, his officials will move forward quickly on an option that is in the best interests of our community, our children and our city”, she explained in that release.

The former Rivier Academy was listed for sale in June, 2020 and remains on the market.

The Ministry of Education responded in an email Monday.

“The Government of Saskatchewan continues to work within the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed with the Conseil des écoles fransaskoises (CEF) in March 2019,” they said.

“That commitment is to develop schools in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert by 2025. Our government will continue to work with the CEF to ensure that these commitments are met in the timeframe promised. “