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Opinion: Francophones need political support

November 21, 2018 — 

The following is an op-ed from U of M law professor Gerald Heckman that originally ran in the Winnipeg Free Press on Nov. 21, 2018:

For members of French-speaking minority communities across Canada, the picture could not have been more ominous. Standing behind a podium emblazoned with the words “For the People,” Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli promoted his government’s mini-budget that would, among other measures, abolish the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner and cancel the establishment of the Université de l’Ontario français, Ontario’s first stand-alone French-language university and a project 40 years in the making, scheduled to open its doors in 2020.

These decisions sent shock waves through Ontario’s 600,000-strong francophone community — the largest outside of Quebec — and francophone communities in other Canadian provinces and territories.

Premier Doug Ford’s government claimed that the elimination of the commissioner’s office was a cost-saving measure. When pressed, however, it was unable to quantify these savings, prompting many to charge that its decision was ideologically motivated. The Ford government has argued that the rights of francophones will still be protected; the truth of the matter is that franco-Ontarians have lost the independent officer of Ontario’s legislative assembly solely dedicated to proactively advancing and ensuring respect for their legal right to quality French-language government services.

The Ford government’s claim that it is treating all Ontarians equally because it has also cancelled expansion projects at English-speaking universities is similarly unconvincing. The elimination of the Université de l’Ontario français will detrimentally affect the francophone community’s ability to withstand the forces of assimilation. The impact of this measure on franco-Ontarians is decidedly unequal.

All of this has occurred on the heels of a divisive election in New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province, which elected to office three MLAs of the People’s Alliance Party who campaigned for the elimination of New Brunswick’s Office of the Official Language Commissioner and of the province’s French-language health network.

These MLAs could hold the balance of power in a minority government to be headed by Progressive Conservative Blaine Higgs, the first unilingual anglophone premier in New Brunswick in 30 years.

Closer to home, Manitoba’s francophone community was dismayed by the Pallister government’s 2017 decision to reassign and not replace the assistant deputy minister responsible for the Bureau de l’éducation française, charged with representing French-language stakeholders’ concerns to the government. Anxieties remain over the strength of the provincial government’s commitment to ensuring that French-language education in the province continues to grow and thrive.

In Ontario, legal action is already being contemplated to challenge the Ford government’s elimination of the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner and the Université de l’Ontario français. Attempts in the 1990s by Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government to close Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital, Ontario’s only fully francophone teaching hospital, were successfully blocked by the Ontario courts based, in part, on the constitutional principle of the protection of minorities.

The courts also accepted the crucial role of truly francophone institutions in promoting and enhancing the franco-Ontarian identity as a cultural and linguistic minority and protecting that culture from assimilation — a role that could not be fulfilled to the same extent by bilingual institutions.

The defence of the rights of francophone minorities should not be shouldered entirely by these communities. Politicians from all parties at the federal and provincial levels should forcefully express their opposition to the Ford government’s measures, as have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his official languages minister, Mélanie Joly. A failure to do so could have at least two serious consequences: it may give other populist politicians licence to seek, “for the people,” to erode the rights of francophone communities, and it will also feed into the narrative pedalled by sovereigntist hardliners in Quebec that it is impossible for francophone communities to thrive in the rest of Canada and that the future of the French language in North America lies in an independent Quebec.

On Monday, Quebec Premier François Legault raised the issue of support for Ontario’s francophone community in meetings with Ford. Premier Brian Pallister, Ford’s neighbour to the west, should do the same. While he’s at it, he should reaffirm his government’s commitment to supporting and enhancing the francophone community in Manitoba.

Gerald Heckman is an associate professor in the faculty of law at the University of Manitoba who teaches constitutional and administrative law as well as language rights.

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