Francophone Ontario is the barometer of francophone communities in Canada. What happens if the wind changes direction or if a low-pressure system moves in?
A barometer measures atmospheric pressure. It is a gauge of the environment and weather systems. Official language minority communities in Canada know all too well how much environment plays a role in the expression of identity and collective aspirations. These systems, which come and go, can often hinder development (low pressure) or, in some cases, facilitate positive actions (high pressure).
Currently, there is a fast moving low-pressure system that seems to be threatening Francophones in Ontario and elsewhere. Canadians, and especially those who believe in linguistic duality, should be very concerned. The very fabric of the country might be tearing at the seams.
In its fall 2018 Ontario Economic Statement, the Ontario government announced drastic changes that affect Francophone rights and services. This was seen as an affront and sent shock waves throughout Canada. Minister Vic Fedeli announced, to the surprise of many including those chiefly concerned, that the province will abolish the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner.
To add insult to injury, the Ford government also shot down plans to create a French-language University based in the GTA before it even got off the ground. This Université de l’Ontario français (UOF) was in the process of being created by and for Franco-Ontarians, with an internationalist twist. Actions plans were being implemented: a full board of governors was to be in place in early 2019 and provide university programs to a new cohort of students as of 2020-21.
Francophones East, West, North and in Québec have reacted as if they were themselves under attack, or bearing the brunt of insensitive and improvised decisions. All political parties in Quebec are wondering why Ontario would want to harm its vital Francophone community? Even the English-speaking leadership and media in Quebec has come to the defense of the francophone minority counterparts.
The Anglophone majority in Ontario and its government seem to be questioning the very bilingual nature of the country. For this proposed tightening of the belt appears to cut deeper in the case of Francophones in Ontario than for the English-speaking population at large.
Furthermore, the government has yet to come up with the exact amount of savings, since these public servants will likely be absorbed into other Departments, including François Boileau as a senior provincial bureaucrat. Are these programs eliminated as a result of a thorough program review or are they motivated by another dynamic altogether? Comparisons with the current New Brunswick political landscape and anti-francophone sentiment abound.
Language programs are not just any other programs. In the case of an Ombudsman as well as access to higher learning in your native language, these are viewed as pillars of linguistic duality by Francophones. The job of a Commissioner cannot be reduced to the complaints function. More than a watchdog, Commissioner Boileau has acted as a key conduit between the Franco-Ontarian community and the provincial government. Without such institutions protecting and promoting the French language, other rights and services are weakened. Francophones come to feel as second class citizens.
Scaling back language programs in this fashion seems to suggest to Francophones that, at best they do not belong and at worst, their constitutional rights a worthless. As was the case with Montfort, the Ontario government may be soon be in a for a legal dog fight.
Addressing the language issue in such a cavalier fashion is both politically dangerous and short sighted. Why would people, who purport to be business-wise only look at one side of the balance sheet?
If bilingualism and French-language services indeed entail certain costs, it has benefits that far outweigh the sums that are collectively invested: multilingual workforce, social cohesion, linguistic harmony, economic development, not to mention the personal benefits for citizens who subscribe and live up to these ideals. Bilingualism and multilingualism are measures of success and personal growth, as many English-speaking Canadians believe.
Why has Ontario’s salvo into the language pond created such an uproar in other parts of Canada? The response is clear. The Canadian francophonie beats to Ontario’s drum, for the simple fact that about half of all minority Francophones in Canada live there.
Francophones in Canada are paying close attention to how these dynamics play out in Ontario, for they may very well happen elsewhere. Francophones in Canada are mobilizing in support of Franco-Ontarians for that very reason.
English speaking Canadians may choose to stand idle. But if these populist waves sweep across Canada, they may wake up to a very different country in the near future.
Opinion, Toronto Star, 20 November 2018, Abolishing Ontario’s French language Commissioner is a blow to minority rights across Canada