Ford’s French-language smack down has just begun

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It is not just a question of prioritizing the university. The most egregious mistake by the new Ford government was the decision to eliminate the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 3, 2018.

OTTAWA—Premier Doug Ford’s French-language smack down has just begun.

And if he thinks his problem is going to go away any time soon, he does not understand the deep roots and the strength of the francophone community in Ontario.

The last time the provincial government moved to reduce services was when the government of Mike Harris vowed to shut down the only full-service francophone hospital in the province.

That decision spawned SOS Montfort, which is one of the legendary stories of survival in a community that had to fight tooth and nail for every right it achieved in the past century.

Ten thousand francophones and their supporters took to the streets of the nation’s capital, led by a diminutive dynamo Gisele Lalonde. Key organizers included the late Mauril Bélanger and journalist Michel Gratton.

Coincidentally, Gratton was also a close friend of prime minister Brian Mulroney who was a strong supporter of minority rights, having grown up as an anglophone in northern Quebec.

Most francophones thought we were past that. With Ontario Progressive Conservative Minister Caroline Mulroney as attorney general and minister of francophone affairs, observers were assuaged about the possibility of a potential attack on francophone rights.

The SOS Montfort movement also spawned a tightening up of the conditions where the Government of Canada sends transfers for minority language services to the provinces.

The federal government tops up the cost of minority language education and ancillary services through an agreement, known as the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Minority-Language Education and Second Official-Language Instruction, renewable every five years. The funding is based on the principle that offering services in a second language, including school board and curriculum development, is more expensive to deliver, based on economies of scale.

The theory behind the second-language action plan transfers is that the federal government assists in supporting development of minority language services vis-à-vis the action plan that is negotiated in the transfer package.

In some instances, that means expansion of the university system. The federal government has already announced its support for the south-western Ontario French language university, a project that has been in the making for more than two decades.

The other element that Premier Ford failed to understand in his hasty decision to cut French language services is that the francophone demographic has changed drastically since SOS Montfort.

The original supporters were primarily old-stock French Canadians, who fought for services even as their numbers dwindled as a result of intermarriage, decreasing birthrate and anglicization.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pictured with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Official Languages Minister Mélanie Joly, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in his Centre Block office on Nov. 28, 2018, to discuss francophones in Ontario. Image courtesy of Twitter

That core has been buttressed in the last two decades by waves of immigrants from French-speaking countries who have made Ontario their home.

They live and work in French, and the Association des Canadiens Francais de l’Ontario has built strong links with the newcomer community.

ACFO has worked to integrate francophone newcomers into the support system of schools and hospitals, with the hope that dwindling local populations would be buttressed by an influx of immigrants.

Ford is now dealing with a monster of his own making. The francophone presence is felt in some 40 ridings across the province and they organized a Resistance rally in all of them Saturday to let the Conservatives know that they are hopping mad.

The only francophone in the Tory caucus, articulate, 29-year-old newcomer Amanda Simard, quit last week as a result of the cuts. That will put pressure on more to follow.

Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath has mustered her troops to fight the decision and enlisted the support of her federal cousin NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is calling on the federal government to do more.

In that regard, Singh is right. Canada’s federal Minister Responsible for La Francophonie, Mélanie Joly, needs to send a clear message to Queen’s Park that this decision is not without financial consequences.

It is not just a question of prioritizing the university. The most egregious mistake by the new Ford government was the decision to eliminate the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner.

The position of commissioner sends an important signal, not only to government ministries but also to the whole province. If minority rights are not respected in the delivery of language services, there will be consequences.

Folding that office into the ambit of the ombudsman is an absolute slap in the face to those who have spend decades fighting for minority rights.

Joly and Prime Minister Justin Justin Trudeau need to let the premier know that cutting back on minority language services will cost him dearly, and not just at the polls.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.