By Stephen Davis

Many newcomer, multilingual families in Canada are interested in French Immersion (FI) programs, but there has not been much investigation into the experiences of students with a refugee background in these programs. I decided to conduct a study to answer the following question: What are the perspectives of educators with respect to refugee-background students in FI programs across the Canadian Prairies? My hope is that the results will lead to increased inclusion and support for these students.

Study Background

Eight school divisions took part in this study, including four in Saskatchewan, two in Manitoba, and two in Alberta. In total, 126 educators completed a survey and 40 took part in interviews. Participants included FI elementary and secondary teachers, FI principals, and central office staff. I decided to use the term “refugee-background student” throughout the study to emphasize that these students’ migration experiences do not define them entirely but constitute only part of their complex, dynamic identities.

Perspectives on Inclusion

Educators expressed a belief that FI programs were becoming more culturally and linguistically diverse. Several shared that they had taught refugee-background students from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. An overwhelming majority (93.7%) of survey participants agreed that refugee-background parents should be able to choose the program of study for their children. This inclusive view was also reflected in interviews like this one:

I think French Immersion should welcome all of our refugee students, especially those coming from refugee backgrounds, even if they’re not French backgrounds… I don’t think we should close our doors to anybody! —Tammy, School Principal, Alberta

Some had more exclusionary views toward refugee-background students. For instance, 25.5% of survey participants indicated that FI educators should sometimes make enrolment decisions for refugee-background families. Some also mentioned colleagues who believed that FI programs might be inappropriate for refugee-background students, including the following example regarding a student who had recently migrated from Ukraine:

There was a colleague, and their student is in Grade 1, just moved from Ukraine, post-war. So, there’s a lot going on for this kid. Not a lick of English and the student’s in FI. The teacher’s perspective was: “This kid just went through hell. Dad didn’t come with them. And now you want to put them in a classroom in Regina, Saskatchewan, to learn French when they don’t know a lick of English?” —Karen, FI Teacher, Saskatchewan

Some educators also shared that the age of arrival of refugee-background students was a key factor in their inclusion, discussing the need for flexible entry for these learners. Overall, most educators expressed that refugee-background students should be included in FI programs, while others questioned the suitability of FI in the English-dominant sociolinguistic context of the Canadian Prairies.

teacher and high school teenage students in classroom

Perspectives on Support for Students

Participants resoundingly agreed that more support was needed for refugee-background students in FI programs. Many interview participants discussed the need for more resource support and more English as an Additional Language (EAL) instruction.

Unfortunately, what I see is that immersion is a bit neglected… I would say that in dual-track schools, we favour the kids who are in English when it comes to supports for English as an Additional Language, and even for special needs. —Samantha, Central office staff, Alberta

Several administrators requested professional development opportunities focused specifically on supporting refugee-background students and newcomer learners in FI programs.

In my ideal world, if we had lots of refugees and other newcomers coming into French immersion programs, it would be nice to do a specific PD with those EAL teachers. —Stella, Central office staff, Saskatchewan

Recommendations for School Divisions

Drawing from the perspectives of study participants, I have five recommendations for educators and school divisions to implement in FI programs across Canada. These are designed to better support and include refugee-background students and multilingual learners more broadly.

  1. Create inclusive policy in FI programs to ensure the consistent inclusion of refugee-background students and multilingual learners.
  2. Create multilingual FI promotional materials to better include refugee-background students and multilingual learners.
  3. Provide greater supports in FI programs so that refugee-background learners and families are offered equivalent resources to those provided in regular English programs.
  4. Offer diverse FI programs and allow for flexible entry for refugee-background students and newcomer, multilingual learners who migrate to Canada at diverse ages and grade levels.
  5. Provide professional learning opportunities in FI programs focusing on equipping FI educators to better support refugee-background students.

I hope this study leads to a greater understanding of educators’ perspectives on refugee-background students in FI programs across the Canadian Prairies. Educators and researchers alike can play a critical role in creating more equitable policies and resources to better include and support refugee-background students in FI programs throughout Canada.

Read more about Stephen’s study in Réflexions 43-1.


Stephen Davis is an Assistant Professor in the Baccalauréat en éducation française in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina. Stephen’s research explores French immersion programs, language education, language ideology, language policy, refugee education, inclusive education, and plurilingual pedagogies.


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