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Editorials Globe editorial: Cutting Ontario’s francophone office is a case of big offence, small savings

Caroline Mulroney was sworn in as Attorney-General of Ontario and Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs on June 29 of this year. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the province’s Commissioner of French Language Services tabled his annual report.

It painted an “alarming” picture, according to the commissioner, François Boileau. Ontario’s francophone population has risen steadily over the past two decades, from 555,605 in 1996 to 622,415 in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. But thanks to an even quicker rise in the province’s total population, francophones are losing ground.

Based on current growth projections, francophones' share of the population could fall to below 4 per cent by 2028, Mr. Boileau said. His report’s main recommendation called on the government to “identify strategies to turn the tide or, at the very least, minimize its consequences.”

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Ms. Mulroney’s response? She is closing Mr. Boileau’s office. As well, the Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford is reneging on a campaign promise to fund a planned French-language university in Toronto on the grounds the province can’t afford it.

The simultaneous moves have incensed Franco-Ontarians. They see themselves as under attack from a hostile government run by a Premier, who, at times, seems unaware they even exist. They are further angered by the fact that, when Mr. Ford does acknowledge their presence, he lumps them in with other linguistic minorities, ignoring the status of French as one of Canada’s two official languages.

The decisions also touched a raw nerve in Quebec. Editorialists and columnists have published a stream of angry articles claiming Ontario’s actions are proof that English Canada doesn’t care about French-speakers outside of Quebec, or is actively hostile to them. One writer even compared it all to the hanging of Louis Riel.

Some of the reaction is overwrought. It is not as if the Ford government is ending French-language higher education in the province. Ontario has long had two French-language colleges and several universities offering programs entirely in French, led by the University of Ottawa/Université d’Ottawa, which claims to be the world’s largest bilingual English-French university.

And there is no reason to believe the government singled out the Université de l’Ontario français. In October, the Progressive Conservatives stopped funding for three new satellite university campuses in the Greater Toronto Area; last week, it said it would not financially support a new law school at Ryerson University. The French-language university was caught in the same austerity measures.

But killing the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner is another matter. It sends a message that Ontario has lost interest in the very real difficulties faced by one of the province’s oldest communities. It revives painful memories of a history of discrimination, ignores the degree to which French is still spoken in many parts of Ontario, and undermines efforts to keep the language alive from generation to generation.

Ms. Mulroney has lamely tried to turn the tables on her critics by saying that the Commissioner’s duties will be taken up by someone in the Ombudsman’s office. She even said Mr. Boileau is welcome to the job, though it’s not her place to tell the provincial Ombudsman whom to hire.

As well, the move to the Ombudsman’s office seems to reduce the commissioner’s role to that of an investigator of violations of the French Language Services Act, the Ontario law that guarantees access to provincial services in French where numbers warrant. The commissioner’s additional role of recommending ways of improving the delivery of services in French and monitoring progress is in jeopardy.

Then again, if, as Ms. Mulroney claims unconvincingly, this is simply a case of combining two offices into one to save on overhead, with no reduction of the commissioner’s mandate, then the reasons for doing so are all the poorer. Is the government seriously doing this just to save a few thousand dollars in office expenses?

The Ford government knows that symbolic gestures matter. After all, it campaigned on lowering the minimum price for beer. If “a buck a beer” means something to people, then surely Ms. Mulroney can see how shuttering Ontario’s Office of the French Language Services Commissioner might also mean something to Canada’s francophones.

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