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January 13, 2001

Boy's future in French left to Ohio judge

Cross-border divorce: Mother wants son to learn about ancestry; father calls it a 'sham'

Mary Valli
National Post

Paul Darrow, National Post
Lorraine Simmons stands in front of the school where her son is a French immersion student. She wants him to learn about Acadian history.

An Ohio judge will decide whether a six-year-old Nova Scotian boy should study French at school.

Mark Jamieson-Simmons, a Grade 1 student, is trapped in a messy custody battle that jeopardizes his chance to take French immersion in Eastern Passage, near Halifax.

Mark's mother, Lorraine Simmons, claims to be of Acadian descent and wants her son to learn about his family history through the language. But Mark's father, Dr. David Jamieson, a Canadian doctor living in small-town Ohio, claims French schooling places undue stress on his young son.

"My grandmother was fully French Acadian," Ms. Simmons said. "I want Mark to regain his heritage, as well as benefit from the undeniable asset of speaking a second language."

Dr. Jamieson says Mark is still confronting the reality of his parents' recent divorce.

"He was taken away from me for the first time, taken away from his friends -- his environment -- and taken to a new country," Dr. Jamieson said from his home in Hillsboro, Ohio.

"This French immersion just doubles his stress on top of that. He had never heard one word of French."

Last month, the father asked an Ohio judge to order that his son attend an English Grade 1 class.

Mark's education is but one small battle in an extensive family feud, one that straddles the border and has forced Ms. Simmons to explain the essence of being Canadian to an American judge.

"It's more a fight between Mom and Dad than it is over French immersion versus mainstream education," said Craig Treneff, Ms. Simmons' lawyer in Ohio.

The couple met in Halifax in the early nineties, when the military was putting Dr. Jamieson through medical school and Ms. Simmons worked as a nurse. Dr. Jamieson moved to Ohio shortly after Mark was born to pursue a career in family medicine.

The pair married in January, 1996, so Ms. Simmons could legally join her husband in the United States. Their marriage disintegrated within a year; Ms. Simmons says her husband left her for an American woman.

She stayed in Ohio until the divorce proceedings ended last year and moved Mark back to Nova Scotia around the same time he was entering kindergarten.

She has primary custody of Mark, but the child spends most of his holidays and summer vacations with Dr. Jamieson and his new wife.

Dr. Jamieson is asking the judge for more time with Mark in addition to the schooling order. He believes his former wife's insistence on French immersion is a ploy to make it harder for Mark to be transferred to an American school.

"She knows how close Marky and I are, and that's why she put him in French immersion," he said. "She's put him in this program to try to create an argument that he would not be able to come down here even if he were able.

"This cultural heritage argument is a complete sham. There's nobody French on either one of our sides of the family that I know of."

Ms. Simmons is equally suspicious of her former husband. Dr. Jamieson claims Mark is not meeting his academic potential, but Mark's recent report card indicates he is doing fine in his classes, she said. Mark's teachers rated him "good" in all of his subjects.

"Mark sometimes speaks French on his own and is being encouraged to speak it more often," his teacher writes. "This is normal when students have so many things to share with the class they sometimes choose to use their first language."

Mark has been sent to the principal for hitting other children, but Ms. Simmons says his actions are typical for a child dealing with parental separation.

Ms. Simmons believes Dr. Jamieson will keep launching court actions until she declares bankruptcy and can no longer fight for custody of her son. She already owes US$40,000 in legal fees.

"Mark is like any normal, healthy child. He wants to see both parents equally," she said.

"But I can't facilitate that or help him because I cannot live in America. I do not have a green card or status to work in the United States, whereas his father could easily come and live in Canada."

Ms. Simmons' efforts to have the case heard in Canada was unsuccessful because the couple lived here for less than a year.

However, she believes the American judge cannot appreciate the nuances of what it means to live in a bilingual country because he cannot truly understand how French has filtered into Canadian culture.

"I think he's a very intelligent man, and my attorney has said he's definitely ruled in my favour [until now]," she said.

"But, no offence to him, he still doesn't have the cultural background or heritage ... to know what it's like to be a French Acadian descendent."

If the judge rules in her former husband's favour, Ms. Simmons could risk her custody rights and contempt of court if she keeps Mark in a French immersion class. A decision is expected in the case later this month.

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