A group of parents is eying Dalhousie School in Fort Garry for Manitoba's first public school offering Arabic-language programs.
But they'll be happy to find a space anywhere in the south end of Winnipeg near their mosque and community centre on Waverley Street, said Ibrahim Eldessouky, organizer of the fledgling campaign. "We have a committee of 14 persons working among the Arab and Muslim communities," said Eldessouky, a pharmacist who came to Canada from Egypt 20 years ago.
The families fear their children are losing their heritage language, and after-school or weekend classes aren't enough to be fluent, he said. When children read the Qur'an, "How can I recite something and not understand?
"We need to retain our language," said Eldessouky. "It is not a religious thing, it is keeping the language."
Eldessouky said there are private faith-based schools offering Arabic, but the families want their children to learn Arabic, and to learn in Arabic, in a public school.
The greatest concentration of potential students lives around Dalhousie School, he said, but anywhere in Pembina Trails School Division, the St. Norbert schools in Seine River S.D., or even east of the Red River in Louis Riel S.D. would be welcomed.
As with Spanish, Cree and Ojibway programs starting next fall in the Winnipeg School Division, Arabic programs would ideally start in one school with classes in kindergarten and Grade 1, adding another grade each year.
"This is just step-by-step on a long road," Eldessouky said. "Our next step is to continue collecting names. We are going to knock on all the doors in Pembina Trails or Louis Riel or Seine River."
Pembina Trails superintendent Ted Fransen said it is premature to comment until his division receives a formal request. However, he said Dalhousie has significant space available for growth. "At times, we have had as many as 50 different countries and languages represented at Dalhousie," whose enrolment is about 75 per cent newcomers to Canada.
Education Minister James Allum said he'd consider funding for additional language programs in schools if a proposal comes forward.
"There's a process in place to build community support," said Allum, whose officials have met with the parents. "We're certainly willing to work with school divisions."
Opposition Tory education critic Wayne Ewasko said the process exists so communities and school divisions can meet children's needs if the numbers are there for a new program.
But Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari said by email official and indigenous languages are the Liberals' priorities in difficult budgeting, and other languages should be considered within the school day only as funding permits and demand warrants: "Investments in these areas should be made outside of the public education system due to finance restraints on the current system," she said.
A Muslim community activist said Manitoba Muslims speak dozens of languages.
"In our community, 38 to 40 languages and dialects are spoken," said Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of Islamic Social Services Association. "Not all Muslims are Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslim."
Within the Arabic language, Siddiqui said, "the dialects are different."