TORONTO - A French-language university canceled by Ontario’s government this month has kindled the passions of Canada’s francophone minority, who are set to replay their historical rights struggle.
In addition to nixing the proposed university that was to open in Toronto in 2020, the province with the largest francophone minority in the country — outside of Quebec — also cut funding for francophone theater troupes.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, the brother of Toronto’s late crack-smoking mayor, responded to a barrage of criticism, saying the move “has nothing to do with personal (grudges or other) against any franco-Ontarians.”
“They’re great people,” he told reporters. “But we also canceled three other universities, English-speaking universities.”
Ford insisted that budget constraints were behind the decision, which will save Ontario 80 million Canadian dollars ($60 million) over seven years.
But it has rattled Ontario’s 600,000 francophones, who represent about 4 percent of Ontario’s population.
The move also drew criticism and calls to reverse course from the federal government and others including the government of Quebec, where francophones are the majority.
Canada’s nearly 8 million francophones represent 20 percent of its population, but most are in Quebec.
“I know personally from having taught French in Vancouver, from having spoken with minority communities right across the country, how much they look to the federal government to try and stick up for them, regardless of what the provinces do,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
“And we will certainly be engaged with the provincial government to try to ensure they do this.”
His father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, enshrined bilingual language rights in the nation’s constitution.
Justin Trudeau’s languages minister, Melanie Joly, was scheduled to confront her Ontario counterpart, Caroline Mulroney, about the issue Friday.
Joly also announced CA$5 million for a “court challenges program” which provides financial assistance for important court cases that advance constitutional rights.
Francophone groups have dusted off their picket signs and plan to march for their rights in 40 locations across Ontario on Dec. 1.
“We feel betrayed,” said Carol Jolin of the lobby group Assemblee de la Francophonie de l’Ontario.
Ford had pledged during the June election support for the new university that was to enroll 3,000, Jolin said.
“Everything was going pretty well for francophones in Canada in recent years,” Jolin said. “But we’re worried now about a backsliding.”
The late 1960s and the two decades that followed had marked a turning point for Canadian francophones in their fight to have their rights to an education and government services in French recognized.
This included a Manitoba insurance broker’s 1976 Supreme Court challenge of a parking ticket issued only in English as a means to restore French language rights in that province, and a 1990s battle against budget cuts to keep open Ontario’s only francophone hospital, Montfort in Ottawa.
French language rights were laid out in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and other laws.
New Brunswick went the furthest, making French one of its two official languages in 1969. But the province suffered a relapse in September when a fringe party that campaigned on slashing “costly” French services emerged as a potential kingmaker in an election that failed to secure a majority.
Trudeau’s Liberals have sought to make the rights row an election issue in 2019, as Ford’s government is closely allied with the federal opposition Conservatives and their leader, Andrew Scheer.
“This decision is unacceptable,” Joly said, demanding that Ford back down and “that Andrew Scheer denounce it too.”
Scheer, however, distanced himself from Ford on the issue.
“We are a bilingual country with many francophones outside of Quebec and the federal government must work with the provinces to ensure that all Canadians have the same rights and access to services and programs,” the Conservative leader said during a Quebec tour.
Jolin held out hope that a negotiated solution may be reached with Ford, but added that his group is ready to go to court to fight for its linguistic rights.
He noted that demographic trends point to Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis, becoming the nation’s biggest francophone cluster outside of Quebec within a few years.
If 100,000 francophone students in Ontario — along with 200,000 enrolled in French immersion programs — cannot continue their post-graduate education in the language of Moliere, the community will decline, Jolin said.
“It’ll contribute to the assimilation of our young people,” he said. “If they study in English and then go on to work in English, French will stop being a part of their life.”