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Quebec siblings challenge school fitness test

Florence, left, and Olivier Dallaire-Turmel, right, aged 18 and 20 played hockey at home

CLEMENT ALLARD/clement allard The Globe and Mail

Florence Dallaire-Turmel ran on treadmills, did spinning classes and trained five days a week. Her brother, Olivier, took up jogging and played intensive hockey. Despite their efforts, both students were unable to pass a crucial college physical fitness test.

The two were not only frustrated, but they also wanted justice. So the Quebec siblings are taking their school to court and suing for $25,000 each, arguing that the fitness test at the CEGEP de Lévis-Lauzon is illegal, unreasonable and violates their charter rights.

"I love doing sports. But this test is abusive," Olivier said Monday from his family's home in Lévis near Quebec City.

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The court challenge could end up testing whether schools are going too far in their attempt to improve students' fitness levels. A CEGEP is a Quebec institutions of postsecondary, pre-university education offering a choice of university preparation or professional training leading to a diploma.

Both Olivier, 20, and Florence, 18, say they have been sports-minded and active all their lives. Florence was a competitive gymnast as a child, and plays goalie on a Midget-A women's hockey team, which sometimes squares off against men's teams.

Olivier bicycles, plays tennis, trains in gyms and went to a sports-focused high school where he specialized in hockey.

Yet both were unable to pass a cardio-respiratory fitness test introduced in 2000 at their CEGEP, which has more than 3,100 students. The so-called "maximum aerobic power" test required students to quickly walk up and down a few steps within a short time period, after which their heart-rate was measured. The test's speed accelerated and their heart rate was taken again.

Both Florence and Olivier were deemed to have inadequate levels of fitness and required to take the test again about 14 weeks later. Both trained assiduously but were unable to improve their scores. Because the fitness test was worth 50 per cent of their final physical education grade, they failed their course. As a result, neither could obtain a college degree.

Florence has since been admitted to Laval University law school this fall, pending receipt of her diploma. Olivier was given a one-year reprieve from Laval to allow him to attend university last year.

"I took advanced math at school but phys-ed was much more stressful," said Florence, whose school average was close to 90. She said her gym teacher told her to quit her part-time grocery-store job so she could train more. She refused.

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"I feel I have nothing to reproach myself for. I worked out five days a week," she said.

The siblings are being represented in court by their father, Simon Turmel, a lawyer and political aide in the provincial Liberal government. Mr. Turmel says the test fails to take into account hereditary or other factors, such as stress. His son Olivier suffers from mild asthma.

"Sports have always been part of their lives. But this test went too far," Mr. Turmel said.

The siblings' lawsuit calls the CEGEP's test "illegal, abusive, arbitrary, unreasonable" and says it discriminates against the plaintiffs on the basis of "their physical and psychological traits."

"A student can be denied his college diploma solely because he didn't improve his physical condition within a 14-week period," the lawsuit says.

No one at the CEGEP was available Monday to comment. However, a spokeswoman for the school told a Quebec City newspaper last month that the failure rate of the test was "really not high." Sylvie Vallières said it is as important to pass a physical education test as it is a French test. The test, she said, was designed to give students a "healthy mind in a healthy body."

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However, Mr. Turmel obtained an expert opinion that concluded the test was not scientifically valid. Without the fitness test, Olivier's final phys-ed grade would have been 75 per cent; his sister's would have reached 88 per cent.

The Dallaire-Turmel family isn't alone in raising doubts about the test. The Quebec Ministry of Education, in a letter included in the family's lawsuit, expresses "extreme concern" over the use of a tool measuring physical performance, which ends up counting for half a student's final grade.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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