Franco-Ontarians didn’t need another reason to distrust conservative politicians. But Premier Doug Ford has given them a doozy by reneging on his vow to respect the previous Liberal government’s promise to create a university “by and for” Ontario’s francophone minority.
It was a Conservative government that, in 1912, attempted to ban the use of French in Ontario schools entirely – a dark episode in the province’s history for which then-Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne apologized in 2016. And it was a Progressive Conservative government that, pretexting budget exigencies in 1997, tried to close the province’s only French teaching hospital until the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled doing so was a violation of minority-language rights.
Those rights are rooted in Canada’s history and the Constitution. They are neither negotiable nor matters of political prerogative. I’m not sure if Mr. Ford understands this, but the cavalier manner in which he moved to scrap plans for a French-language university and eliminate the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner suggests he doesn’t quite get it, yet.
It’s not that cancelling this particular plan for a university was such a bad idea, given divisions within the Franco-Ontarian community about whether the Liberal plan was the best one. Rather, it was how Mr. Ford went about it – in a single sentence in last week’s fiscal update, as if flushing decades of efforts by the province’s francophone minority down the drain wasn’t worth more than a cursory explanation. “Upon further review of the province’s fiscal situation, the government will also be cancelling plans to proceed with a new French‐language university.”
Yes, Ontario’s finances are in the ditch. It has a $14.5-billion deficit that no one knows how to tame. Its net debt as a percentage of gross domestic product has hit 40.8 per cent. A TD Economics report warns it could hit 49 per cent by 2023.
Still, for Franco-Ontarians, the creation of a French-language university goes to the very heart of their struggle for survival as a community. The previous government’s promise to set up an all-new institution in Toronto, regardless of its flaws, served as a message to the province’s 620,000 francophones that their presence in the province and their future contribution to Ontario society were both valued.
Mr. Ford, and Francophone Affairs Minister Caroline Mulroney, ended up sending exactly the opposite message. If the Ford government (of which my brother happens to be a member) honestly concluded that it could not in good conscience put scarce public money into the Liberal plan, it owed Franco-Ontarians a commitment to come up with a better one.
It’s not too late to do that. The Liberal promise to create a French university from scratch in Toronto emanated from a 2017 report by former federal Official Languages Commissioner Dyane Adam, who argued that francophone immigrants are more likely to settle in Southern Ontario than in long-standing Franco-Ontarian communities in Northern and Eastern Ontario.
But quality institutions of higher learning are rarely created by government fiat and the proposed Université de l’Ontario français always risked being a poor cousin to the province’s established universities. Starting out with 300 students with an extremely limited program offering, it would have struggled to survive. Most important, it would have faced stiff competition from the province’s existing bilingual universities.
Indeed, about 60 per cent of Franco-Ontarian high-school graduates who go on to university choose to attend the University of Ottawa, which bills itself as the world’s largest bilingual university. The U of O already counts 12,600 francophone students, of whom 48 per cent are Franco-Ontarian, and offers 300 undergraduate programs in French and 200 graduate programs en français.
The only problem is that, as a bilingual institution, it is not the university “by and for francophones” that the Franco-Ontarian community has long sought. While francophones at the U of O tend to be bilingual, that is not the case of the anglophone majority on campus. Hence, English remains the default language on campus.
Commenting on the Liberal government’s decision in 2017, François Charbonneau, a political studies professor at the U of O and expert in minority-language rights, argued that the “real solution, the one that would have required political courage, would have been to create one large Franco-Ontarian university based on an amicable splitting of the University of Ottawa.”
Instead, as Prof. Charbonneau wrote in Ottawa’s French-language Le Droit newspaper, “we’re going to create a Franco-Ontarian university where it has the least chance of succeeding and where it will respond to needs that remain, for the moment, theoretical.”
It may still be politically taboo to talk about splitting the U of O. But if Franco-Ontarians are to get a university worthy of the name, it’s a taboo that deserves to be broken.