‘La lutte’ continues...
This may not become another SOS Montfort, but francophones are justifiably angry and worried about the Ontario government’s decisions that weaken their rights. Franco-Ontarians, who mobilized when the Montfort Hospital was threatened with closure in 1997, are once again mounting a campaign against a Conservative government that has again shown disrespect for the approximately 600,000 French-speaking residents of the province.
The elimination of the independent French Language Services Commissioner and the cancellation of a proposed French-language university will save relatively little money considering that the government is awash in a $15 billion deficit.
There is a political price to be paid but obviously Doug Ford realizes that francophones are not large enough of a voting block to do the Tories much harm when the next election rolls around.
The many Conservatives in Eastern Ontario, who blindly support Ford Nation, may dismiss any criticism of the Tories as the whining of a few malcontents.
But one Conservative MPP, Amanda Simard, has joined the chorus of objections to the austerity measures.
Originally, the Glengarry-Prescott-Russell MPP had said, “I understand that our Franco-Ontarian community is concerned by the decision regarding the Commissioner’s Office. I would like to clarify that these functions will remain independent under the governance of the Ombudsman. I will do everything I can to ensure that you are heard and represented.”
But last week, she took a tougher stance, saying she would ask the government to reverse the decisions.
These trying times for the newly-elected MPP Amanda Simard, who happened to be named parliamentary secretary for francophone affairs after she ended the Liberals’ reign in Glengarry-PrescottRussell. Can you say “Baptème de feu?” Local Tories were justifiably delighted that in the June 7 Ontario election, Ms. Simard ended the Conservatives’ drought in Glen garryPrescott-Russell, which includes North Glen garry, and which has been represented by a Liberal since the riding was formed in 1995.
Now, only a few months later, Ms. Simard, the only francophone in the Conservative caucus, had the unenviable task of trying to explain to her constituents why austerity is more important than minority language rights.
With the French Language Services Commissioner being integrated into the Ombusman’s Office, the province has clearly signalled that francophone rights are not a priority. Meanwhile, as protesters decry the “tyranny of the majority,” and say “Non” to Doug Ford and assimilation, the fair-minded among us ought to be worried by this serious slight.
The measures seriously erode protection of rights and the preservation of franco-Ontarian culture, stresses L’Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario, which is launching a “resistance” movement with protests that are scheduled to be held December 1 across the province.
Terming the decisions a “major setback,” the organization recalls that the Premier had promised to advance the French-language university file during his run fror the leadership and again during the his wildly successful election campaign. After the Tories ousted the Liberals, the commitment towards the post-secondary institution was reiterated, notes AFO president Carol Jolin.
The lobby group has “legitimate concerns” about the enforcement of the Loi sur les services en français.
Naturally, the moves will concern a large portion of the population in Glengarry. Although it is widely known as being The Celtic Heartland of Ontario, many locals speak the langue de Molière. At last count, some 3,860 people in North Glengarry had French as their mother tongue, while English is the first language of 5,555 people in the township. In South Glengarry, there are 3,650 francophones and 8,420 anglophones.
The major source of heat for the Conservatives has come from north of the 417 -- francophones account for 73 per cent of Prescott County’s population and about 62 per cent of Russell’s residents.
The cries of condemnation have emanated from many sectors, including politicians and organizations from outside Ontario.
Among those denouncing the decision is the Québec Community Groups Network, an anglophone lobby group, which says it once regarded Ontario “as a model for how an official language minority community should be treated.”
QCGN President Geoffrey Chambers said Ontario has provided an effective example for the rest of Canada: a French Language Services Act, which is intended to protect the rights of Franco-Ontarians; an Office of Francophone Affairs that ensures Franco-Ontarians receive government services in French so they can participate in the social, economic and political life of the province; as well as a French Language Services Commissioner to ensure those rights are respected.
“One of those important pillars that protected the rights and interests of Franco-Ontarians has been abolished by the Ford Government,” Mr. Chambers said. “This is a setback for the development and vitality of Franco-Ontarians and for all minority language communities across Canada.”
Nobody can argue against the merits of “fiscal restraint.” Taxpayers will save about $12 million from the university cancellation and about $3 million annually by shutting the commissioner’s bureau.
Yet studies have concluded that bilingualism is an important economic asset.
There are many real and imagined consequences of the Ontario conservative stance. The issue could have a polarizing effect. Some cynics suspect that the money-saving rationale advanced by the right wing populists is merely camouflage for a disdain conservatives have for anyone who does not think like them. That may be a facile and harsh assessment. But it is clear that, not surprisingly, Doug Ford and his Torontocentric allies apparently have little appreciation for history, and the importance of respecting Canada’s two official languages.
Back in 1997, the battle to save the Montfort had just begun. Preparing for a long court case, the SOS team members combed through papers written at the time of Confederation to find commitments the nation’s founders had made to minorities. Eventually, the hospital advocates found sufficient proof to bolster their submission that closing the hospital would violate the Canadian Constitution.
SOS scored a victory in 1999 in the Ontario Superior Court; in December 2001, the Court of Appeal upheld that ruling. Five years later, the government yielded; the Conservatives blinked and announced Montfort would remain open.
At the time, the victory was hailed as a monumental win for minorities.
Way back in 1913, when opposition arose against the detested Règlement 17, which banned French-language education, the rallying cry was “L’avenir est à ceux qui luttent,” or “The future belongs to those who fight.”
History is repeating itself as Ontario francophones prepare for another court battle. The reason is different; the cause is the same.