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Like many groundbreaking ideas, it began simply enough -- in this case, in a suburban living room near Montreal. It was October, 1963, and a group of forward-thinking parents had a radical proposal.

They wanted their English-speaking children to learn French and were dissatisfied with the teaching of the day. So they devised an untested method: the so-called "language bath."

"That expression seemed to lack dignity," one of the parents, Olga Melikoff, recalled this week. So the term was changed to French immersion. The name stuck, and a Canadian invention was born.

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French immersion is as much a part of Canada's identity as Mounties and maple syrup, yet few Canadians would know how or where it began. That is set to change tonight near Montreal, where three mothers who spearheaded the movement to give birth to the country's first public language-immersion program will be recognized.

Ms. Melikoff, Murielle Parkes and the late Valerie Neale all had children in or headed toward the public school system in the early sixties, and they shared the view that their children were being poorly prepared to live in Quebec.

"We felt that Quebec was becoming more French, and our kids were going to miss out," Ms. Melikoff, 79, said. "It was an idea whose time had come."

They encountered harsh resistance from their local school board on Montreal's South Shore.

But the trio tirelessly wrote briefs, lobbied school administrators and enlisted the expertise of experts such as neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and McGill University psychologist Wally Lambert.

In 1965, they finally launched their program with 26 kindergarten children at the Margaret Pendlebury School in St. Lambert.

Tonight, at a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of their coup, Ms. Melikoff, Ms. Parkes and members of Ms. Neale's family will accept a plaque from the Riverside School Board.

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It will include a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Some of the children from the maiden kindergarten class, Canada's French-immersion pioneers, will be present.

While immersion is considered a made-in-Canada success story, the legacy of those Quebec parents' groundbreaking experiment is mixed. The Official Languages Commissioner says that after growing since the 1970s, enrolment in French immersion classes across Canada has slowed since the mid-1990s.

And despite the inroads of bilingualism, many English-Canadian adults still have a shaky grasp of French -- two of whom, Belinda Stronach and Scott Brison, aspire to lead the Liberal Party of Canada.

Still, there are more than 300,000 Canadian children who are enrolled in French immersion classes, which exist in every Canadian province and territory except Nunavut.

Some of the strongest growth for French immersion is in British Columbia and Alberta; the sight of Albertan cross-country skiers at the Turin Olympics, giving interviews in fluent French, did not pass unnoticed in Quebec.

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Canadian Parents for French fields calls from Wales to Estonia from officials seeking to know more about Canada's initiative. Last week, the group's director-general, James Shea, spoke about Canadian language immersion to a reporter from Shanghai.

The interest echoes the heady days of those classes in St. Lambert, when officials from Ontario, the United States and elsewhere often showed up to watch the experiment unfolding in the classroom. "It was all so revolutionary," Ms. Parkes recalled.

"But the idea came from a need. We wanted our kids to be bilingual. When I look back, it was quite an exciting era. And it taught me never to give up."

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