Championing French Immersion: A Q&A with Dr. Isabelle Côté

December 05, 2023

Congratulations to Dr. Isabelle Côté, the recipient of the National Award for Excellence in French Immersion, recognized by the Canadian Association of Immersion Professionals (ACPI) for outstanding achievements in immersion teaching and remarkable contributions to promoting French immersion in Canada.

As a leading figure in B.C.’s immersion education, Dr. Côté has played pivotal roles. Starting as a language instructor in the Odyssey program, she ascended to the position of Senior Lecturer in French-language education programs at SFU. Notably, she also serves as the Associate Director of the university's Office of Francophone and Francophile Affairs (OFFA) and co-chairs the Indigenous Education and Reconciliation Council (IERC). Driven by a profound passion, she strives to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into French language courses and teacher training.

In an exclusive Q&A, Dr. Côté shares personal reflections and insights, delving into her work with school districts and her ground-breaking research. From her presidency at the BC Languages Coordination Association (BCLCA) from 2014-2018 to her current role as Director of Communication, she has maintained a steadfast commitment to advancing French immersion education in B.C. 

Q: What were your initial reactions upon learning about this recognition?

A: My immediate reaction was happiness and surprise, but as I reflected on the recognition, I began to think about the collective effort behind it.

I see this award as a recognition not just for me but for the entire French immersion program in B.C. The province boasts a highly dynamic French immersion program with dedicated teachers and a collaborative team from kindergarten to grade 12 across various school districts. Receiving this honour felt like a tribute to the program's success.

Moreover, I see it as a testament to the collaborative work done over the past 20 years that has impacted B.C. and fostered strong partnerships with other provinces like Alberta and Ontario.

It is recognition for "Team B.C." and a celebration of the collaborative achievements that have extended beyond our province to contribute to French immersion education across Canada.

Q: Tell us more about your work with school districts during your presidency. 

A: With federal funding through the BCLCA, we collaborated extensively with language coordinators across B.C. school districts. During my presidency, we focused on strengthening connections with school districts in the Lower Mainland, expanding outreach to regions like Vancouver Island, Northern B.C., and the Okanagan. 

Developing three regional networks, we secured funding for collaboration in the Prince George region and further supported the existing network in the Okanagan and Kootenays, now encompassing 17 school districts. On Vancouver Island, we reinforced an under-supported network for a balanced, province-wide language education approach. 

This collective initiative, undertaken in collaboration with fellow coordinators and board members, aimed to deliver a program that supports teachers, to benefit students across B.C.

Q: Can you share the impact of your research integrating Indigenous perspectives into French immersion programs in B.C.? 

A: The 2016 curriculum changes in B.C. mandated integrating Indigenous perspectives from K to 12, including French immersion, allowing me to explore this in the Teacher Education Program at SFU. My research, the first of its kind in Canada, focuses on documenting teachers' experiences and resources in French to support the implementation of Truth and Reconciliation mandates.

While influencing other provinces, this study underscores the unexplored nature of integrating Indigenous perspectives in French immersion programs compared to English-language schools. Ongoing research is crucial for a comprehensive understanding and to address challenges. 

Q: How do you anticipate this award influencing your ongoing efforts to promote bilingualism and advance French immersion education?

A: We must continue advancing French education alongside other critical mandates, such as inclusive education and integrating Indigenous perspectives. The evolving landscape of French immersion programs prompts questions about inclusion and the extent to which the program caters to diverse learners. Additionally, there is a growing emphasis on how the program integrates Indigenous perspectives.

These inquiries extend beyond B.C., with similar discussions and initiatives occurring in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and beyond. While the award recognizes my work in French immersion education, it is closely tied to Francophone education, as shared questions and challenges emerge in both contexts.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

A: I would like to emphasize the positive changes in the Faculty of Education, particularly during my time in the Professional Development Program (PDP). In the early 2000s, the French cohort only offered one summer class in French. Yet, with support from OFFA and federal funding, new faculty positions emerged, leading to a substantial increase in French courses, master's programs, and even a PhD. These changes fostered a more dynamic environment for Francophone and French immersion education in B.C.

My award mirrors these positive shifts, illustrating the growing opportunities available. These advancements, which were not as prevalent two decades ago, have been integral to my transformative journey, positively impacting both the Francophone and French immersion communities.