The second largest Canadian province, Ontario, has around 620,000 French speakers. Education and learning French is a part of provincial jurisdiction but in Ontario learning French is mandatory from grade one to grade nine, even though the majority of Ontarians speak English. Alex Furgala who works at Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa says that the problem he experienced with learning French was that they were taught standard French with Parisian accent, that’s why “it is embarrassing when we try to speak french in francophone communities here, unless you are lucky enough to have a teacher from Québec.” In the past, francophones had to go to English schools. Today, they have French schools and also two french-only colleges. The third one was supposed to be established in Toronto in 2020 but the recent provincial government has decided to cancel its establishment.
Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative party that’s in charge of the Government of Ontario released the strategy for minimising the fiscal hole. Ontario currently faces a $14.5-billion deficit and among other measures there’s also cutting the number of legislative workers (the environmental commissioner, child and youth advocate and French language service commissioner), and they also plan to cancel a long-awaited French-language university and three other university satellite campuses. While critics from the Green Party and the Official Opposition have been voicing their concerns about first three positions, one of the many who have spoken out on the cancellation was the Premier Minister Justin Trudeau who tweeted that it is critical for “governments in this country to protect, preserve and cherish minority language rights – French and English – across Canada.” And that they “all have a right to live & work in the official language of our choice.” The disappointment and concern were also expressed by the Quebec Premier François Legault, the Québec City Mayor, Québec Francophone Relations Minister and many others. CBS Canada has reported that “Carol Jolin, president of the Francophone Assembly of Ontario, said the decisions were a disappointing surprise for himself and others in the province.
“The French university was more than just a French university. It’s a symbol for the province, and it was a fantastic step forward,” he said.
The Franco-Ontarians decided to step forward themselves which is why they organized protests in Ottawa and nearly 40 other communities across Ontario. In solidarity with fellow francophones the Franco-Ontarian flag was raised in Montreal and in Quebec. Valerie Plante, mayor of Montreal tweeted that “All francophones in this country deserve respect and dignity.” One of the protesters in Ottawa was also Janelle Denisent, who says she decided to go to show solidarity with the Franco-Ontarian community. “Language rights are extremely important to me and Francophone people have the right to services and education in French,” she says. While they’ve been adding pressure on Doug Ford, the Conservative francophones might feel split between their political views and their cultural identity. Paul Demers told the CBS Canada that says he understand that the reaction of the Francophone community because “it felt like a double slap in the face” but he adds that they have to look at the situation with their minds, and not only their hearts. He believes the lives of the French minority are not going to change. Yvan Genier, also a conservative francophone, remembers the protests in the 1990s when he was one of the many who pushed for a French language college in Ontario which is why he says he’s happy to see Franco-Ontarians becoming politically active, despite him not agreeing with them. He believes that the cut had to be made because the province is so low on money but he also brought up the worry that protesting for French services could erode the empathy from English-speaking Canadians. “The Anglophones aren’t against us right now, but we can’t be greedy,” he says. Alex and Janelle disagree. “There will always be some people who will disagree but I don’t see there being a significant number of people who would oppose these rights,” says Janelle. Alex agrees with her, saying “Anglophones are not threatened by Francophones. Many see it as an annoyance or maybe an unfair bias when Anglophones look for a job, but those Anglophones who do speak French, support this.”
The backlash that Ford received after making this decision was quite a surprise and while the protesters are planning more rallies all over the country next week, the leader of federal Conservatives Andrew Scheer has initiated a Parliament Hill summit that will also be attended by the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other party leaders. Main topic for the debate will be Francophone rights and surely he will try to prove that all the actions Doug Ford has decided to take are something that must be done due to fiscal hole and that cutting French language services is in no way a political move against the Francophones. But the Franco-Ontarians have already had a lot to say about Ford earlier this year when he was running for the party and in his speech about the French language seemed to have forgotten about more than half a million people in his province whose mother tongue is French.
Despite the conservatives defending the decision because a cut had to be made, the protests have been successful. Ford has backed down a little bit – on Friday he announced the government will reconsider their previous plans regarding the language services. “The government reversed its decision to axe the position of the French language commissioner, and plans to restore the Ministry of Francophones Affairs were also announced,” reported CBS Canada. But the protesters don’t plan to stop, they want the French college. Janelle Deniset isn’t sure if the protests will actually change Ford’s mind but she hopes they do. But Mélanie Joly, the minister of official languages and La Francophonie has told the CBS Canada that people need to keep putting pressure on the leader of the Progressive Conservative party. She thinks going to court to prove their rights wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Francophones either because she believes the court will recognize that this is a case of national identity of a language minority. “Ford’s attempts at rolling back these rights are truly upsetting for a community who has fought for decades to maintain their linguistic rights,” concludes Janelle.