The Ontario government has cancelled plans to open the province’s first Francophone university despite having promised to do so during the election campaign and shortly after taking office.
The government made the announcement in Thursday's economic outlook and fiscal review. The new university, proposed by the previous Liberal government, was a long-cherished dream for many in Ontario’s Francophone community, and its sudden demise was met with surprise and frustration.
“We’re in shock,” said Radi Shahrouri, co-president of the Franco-Ontarian student group REFO. “It’s been years that Franco-Ontarians have been asking for better access to services such as education. This would have meant a lot to the community.”
Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, said in a statement that the government is committed to supporting existing French-language postsecondary programs, but could not proceed with the proposal because of spending constraints.
“The previous Liberal government’s financial mismanagement has again failed Francophone students, businesses and communities,” Ms. Fullerton said.
In July, Ms. Fullerton said she was “fully committed to the success of the Université de l'Ontario français," lauding its future as a “viable and vibrant place of learning for the Francophone community.”
This announcement comes on the heels of the cancellation last month of satellite campus projects for York, Wilfrid Laurier and Ryerson University.
The new Francophone university was planning to unveil a Toronto campus in 2020. A board of governors was appointed in April, and behind the scenes people were at work making preparations to open the institution.
Normand Labrie, the Francophone University’s interim president, declined to comment on the government’s decision Thursday.
Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath said the Conservative government can’t be trusted to keep its word.
“They promise one thing and the next thing you know they’re rolling back that promise. We’ve seen that with the French university,” Ms. Horwath said. “They’re completely lacking in transparency.”
NDP MPP France Gélinas, who brought forward a private members bill for a Francophone university, said she was bitterly disappointed by the government’s announcement.
“It just breaks my heart and makes me angry all at the same time,” she said. “It says that we [Francophones] don’t matter. Our kids don’t matter.”
Ms. Gélinas said many of Ontario’s 600,000 French speakers hoped to see an education system in which they could send their children from primary to secondary to postsecondary all in their native language.
“All this today is just thrown out the window,” she said. “I guess we’ll all have to go to English universities.”
The government said it will continue to support Ontario postsecondary programs that provide French instruction, including the University of Ottawa, Laurentian University and York’s Glendon College. In all, there are 10 postsecondary institutions that offer programs in French, the government said.
The University of Ottawa, which is officially bilingual, said it recognizes that many are dismayed by the government’s announcement and said it will pursue efforts to provide more courses in French, particularly in science and engineering.
Mr. Shahrouri said students will respond to the government’s announcement in the coming days.
“It won’t be overlooked,” he said. “We will take action.”