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A century later, saying sorry to Ontario’s francophones

Signs in the Grade 2 French class of Natalie Ruel at Mother Teresa elementary school in Calgary, Alberta, June 21, 2012. Photograph by Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail

TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

When governments apologize for past injustices, a justifiable first impulse is to distance ourselves from the darkness of a history that seems to belong to someone else. It now seems hard to believe that in 1912, Ontario thought it wise and just and good to curtail French-language instruction in schools, in an attempt to extinguish the proud and growing French presence in the province.

Last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne offered to redress this wrong in recognizably modern terms by issuing an official apology for an action that is so palpably of another era. Many young Canadians, blessed with a publicly funded education in French-immersion schools, may be inclined to adopt a why-bother attitude – didn't bilingualism and multiculturalism beat down the bigots in the end?

But the lessons of history never go out of date and should always be made available for belated enlightenment – if only so that we can understand in our own equally fallible human context how our ancestors got the answers to the basic questions of co-existence so wrong.

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It was not always thus in early Canada. French enjoyed equal status in Ontario schools even before Confederation. But the militant Protestantism of the Orange Lodge, coupled with a forceful assertion of British imperialism on the eve of the First World War, combined to create a kind of race-based prejudice against the French language.

Ontario's introduction of the infamous Regulation 17 in 1912 even managed to sow internecine conflict among the province's French and English-speaking Catholics – the power-jockeying Bishop Michael Fallon of London sided with the Orange Lodge as a way of asserting greater control over Catholic schooling.

Regulation 17 was in place for only 15 years but in that short time it did enormous damage. Thousands of francophones were deprived of their rights, compromised in their education, limited in their future opportunities and publicly demonized as lesser Canadians. The needless antagonisms generated spilled over into Quebec and justifiably fuelled the nationalist cause – hardened attitudes shaped in that period remain today, long after Ontario saw reason and restored the right to a French-language education. There's a lot to regret, even now.

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