Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is a Franco-Ontarian native of Sudbury, Ont. She currently lives in Toronto.
Last December, I called my mother to get her recipe for tourtière, a beloved traditional French-Canadian dish. It would be the meaningful heart of a bundle of gifts I had lovingly gathered to honour a Métis elder I had recently met. To share this recipe for tourtière was to share a piece of my family’s story with this elder, to whom I owed a great debt of gratitude.
The recipe passed down to my mother from my grandmother, my Mémère Isabella Patry, and came to them through our ancestors, who came before us. For me, the tourtière recipe is woven through our family history, the result of generations of feasts.
I glanced at the recipe. TOURTIÈRE, scrawled across the top of the white card in my mother’s unwieldy handwriting, an accent grave raising its head pointedly above the ‘E.’ Below, a list of ingredients.
An old family recipe spelled out in English, not in French, our maternal and spoken tongue.
“What is this? ‘Why are you talking to me in English?’” I prodded, mimicking my mother, who would scold us when, around guests of the anglophone persuasion, we accidentally addressed her in English.
She waved me off, but, unwilling let go of a golden opportunity to troll her, I laughingly repeated the story to my father.
My father, a Québécois, was once part of a group of intrepid young Francophones who had led the creation of the Franco-Ontarian flag, a now beloved symbol of our collective identity. As a young activist, he had once even participated in a guerrilla flag raising on Laurentian University’s campus (much to the then administration’s chagrin).
My father was not amused by this English-language recipe. My mother, the household’s Guardienne de la Langue, had some explaining to do.
What she revealed was both a tale of family history and our community’s collective memory: her mother, my Mémère, was a young student during the era of Règlement 17, or Regulation 17.
The mention of Regulation 17 continues to evoke chills in our community: Enacted from 1912 to 1927, Regulation 17 aimed to eradicate French-language education in Ontario schools. The objective was ultimately to assimilate Franco-Ontarians into the English-speaking majority.
Born in 1915, Mémère was caught in Regulation 17’s net. She belongs to a generation of Franco-Ontarians who never learned to write their mother tongue.
French Ontario’s memory is rife with stories from this era. Courageous teachers who quietly flouted the law, continuing to teach French in secret. When an inspection was announced, students would just leave the school and the inspector would arrive to an empty classroom. Or students would just hide their French-language books.
There were also very public rebellions, one aptly the “Battle of the Hatpins.” On Jan. 29, 1916, Francophone mothers gathered outside an Ottawa elementary school to prevent inspectors from entering, wielding their hatpins as weapons.
But there are also many stories of families who lived in communities where there simply wasn’t any access to French-language education.
Some, in refusing to give up the language, gave up the pursuit of any education.
My own grandfather, Eugene Bourgeault, a young man in grade eight, was threatened with a beating by Mattawa’s village priest for refusing to learn the Lord’s Prayer in English. The episode spelled the end of his education. He dropped out of school and joined legions of young French-Canadian men in northern Ontario and Quebec’s logging camps.
Years later, when my grandfather saw the priest, he was unforgiving.
“I remember you,” the priest said.
“I remember you, too,” my grandfather growled. “It would take a man bigger than you to beat me today.”
Education has long preoccupied Franco-Ontarians. And last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued a new challenge to our community with his decision to abolish the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner (although he has since backtracked), and in particular, his decision to cancel plans for a Franco-Ontarian university.
We Franco-Ontarians have fought and won against Regulation 17. We earned the right to French-language elementary and secondary education in 1969. In the 1990s and 2000s, we fought for and earned advancements such as the creation of 12 French-language school boards in 1997. We are too close to the dream of a Franco-Ontarian university to give it up.
We will fight Mr. Ford and his government. As my grandfather said to the village priest: It will take a much bigger man than you to beat us.
And one day, when it is my turn to copy the family tourtière recipe, I will let my grandmother bear witness through generations. I will copy her words in English as a reminder of what is at stake when we lose our roots.