Sarah Dorner comes from a family that is all too familiar with the impact of governments who are hostile to francophones.
She's a descendant of the original French settlers of Detroit-Windsor. Her mother's grandparents were married at a church in Ford City just two years after thousands rioted on Sept. 8, 1917 to protest the arrival of a priest who they believe was supportive of Regulation 17, newly-imposed controversial rules in Ontario schools aimed at curbing French.
“One thing is certain, though,” @sarahdorner defiantly tells @toulastake, “more than three hundred years of French in Ontario isn't going to end with Doug Ford.”
“My grandfather's parents were married by that very priest, Father François-Xavier Laurendeau in the Ford City church just two years after the riots,” says Dorner. "The community asked the Vatican to remove him, but the response was that they would be excommunicated if they didn't comply and accept him."
Regulation 17, which was enforced from 1912 to 1927, was a shameful chapter in the province’s history that banned elementary schools from using French as a language of instruction beyond grade two. It also capped the amount of teaching time in French for elementary school students to one hour per day, and permitted French-language education only at the specific request of parents. The measure helped permanently weaken the presence of French in southwestern Ontario.
"Access to education was a general problem in the Franco-Ontarian community because of this regulation," she explains. "Many Franco-Ontarians were laborers and farmers with little education. My grandfather never finished school. Assimilation happened. I speak French today because of my francophile father who ensured that we were enrolled in French public schools growing up in Ottawa."
Dorner says the latest moves by the Ford government, scaling back the office of the province's French-language watchdog and cancelling plans for a French-language university, show that some people still haven't learned from the mistakes of the past.
"I find it deeply unfortunate that Doug Ford has decided that trampling minority rights were worth the cost savings," says Dorner, now residing in Montreal and teaching at the Polytechnique Montréal engineering school.
“I was raised mostly by my francophile father in Ottawa,” Dorner says, “but our family's ethnic Franco-Ontarian roots are from Windsor, Ontario. My father was fiercely proud of speaking French and my grandfather was extremely proud of his family's history. Amazingly enough, our oral history goes all the way back to how our ancestors were granted the land by Chief Pontiac (after the loss against the British)."
Dorner's reaction is just one of many disappointed and angry voices from across the country, joining a steady chorus of outrage about Ford's cuts in Ontario.
Ironically, Ford's cuts took place mere months after French Language Services Commissioner Francois Boileau sounded the alarm, warning if nothing is done to address the issue, 'Ontario's francophone demographic may decrease to the point where it becomes insignificant and public services for the population are hard to come by."
According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of francophones in Ontario went from 5.2 per cent of the population in 1996, to 4.7 percent in 2016 — a decrease Boileau considers troubling.
None of this bodes well for Franco-Ontarians, considering how the provincial government has treated the community in the past.
A painful past of forced assimilation
In 2016, former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne officially apologized on behalf of the government, admitting that Regulation 17 “showed a disregard for Franco-Ontarian identity, and equality.”
Marie-Eve Pépin, vice-chair of l’Association canadienne-française de l’Ontario du grand Sudbury, says the measure “caused irreparable harm to the francophone community by cutting off an entire generation from learning in their own language.”
Even after Regulation 17 was repealed, full public funding wasn’t offered to French-language secondary schools in Ontario until 1968, forcing parents who wanted their children to learn French to pay out of their own pocket. For generations, Franco-Ontarians have fought long battles to ensure the survival of their community, which they knew depended on the existence of educational institutions in which the French language and culture was prioritized.
It is no surprise, then, that Franco-Ontarians are particularly worried by this latest news.
Overwhelming anger and concern
Franco-Ontarian Michelle Sullivan, who also resides in Quebec, and has a mother who has been an advocate for Franco-Ontarian rights for 35 years, isn’t surprised by Ford’s decision and considers it a “huge jump back for Franco-Ontarian rights.”
“If I had been in Ontario, I never would have voted for him,” she says. “This decision is probably not going to affect his voting base and in fact his voting base is probably going to approve of it.”
Sullivan says the French university was actually part of Ford’s electoral platform, so perhaps some Franco-Ontarians voted for him in support of that measure.
"Him going back on that promise is very disappointing,” she says, “especially since this is something that they’ve been fighting for a good couple of decades.”
Dorner is grateful that she had access to French language education because earlier generations of Franco-Ontarians had fought for the right to French-language education, but she would have liked to have had the opportunity to access higher education in her mother tongue.
“I wish I could have continued in French through university,” she says.
So disappointing. I was once a Franco-Ontarian high school student who had to face the hard reality of not being able to continue my education in French. I feel so fortunate that I eventually had the opportunity to become a professor at a francophone university in Québec. #onfr https://t.co/T5EJcKeRvn— Sarah Dorner (@sarahdorner) November 15, 2018
Another issue Sullivan astutely points out is that, due to Franco-Ontarians' bilingualism, they can often operate as an invisible minority, leading some politicians to forget them, or severely underestimate their numbers. Back in February, when Ford was asked by a reporter if it was important for a party leader to speak French, his answer seemed to indicate that he had completely forgotten that over 600,000 French-speaking Ontarians reside in the province he was campaigning in.
My colleague @lamoureuxja asked Doug Ford if it's necessary for a party leader to speak French. He said: "It would be important to be able to communicate with a part of our country that speaks French. I love Quebec. I love Quebecers. They're passionate." https://t.co/vENBytRRCE— Mike Crawley (@CBCQueensPark) February 9, 2018
Sullivan urges Franco-Ontarians to continue fighting for their rights and be aware that they’re not protected by the laws of a bilingual province in the way that perhaps francophones in New Brunswick might be and be a little more diligent to make sure that this isn’t a first step back towards assimilation.
“I think it’s a very short-sighted decision and putting this office under the ombudsman’s responsibility is silly,” she adds. “It’s just too much of its own specific mandate. It needs more attention than just being added on to someone else’s responsibilities.”
Despite the disappointment, Sullivan retains a sense of hope and a fighting spirit.
“Governments come and go, and this might be a good wake-up call for Franco-Ontarians,” she says. “Franco-Ontarians and francophones outside of Quebec have been pretty good scrappers for their rights so I expect that unfortunately they may need to double down on their efforts themselves.”
'Death knell' for fragile community
Claude Théoret, a Franco-Ontarian who has also makes Quebec his home, worries that Ford’s decision could be the death knell of an already fragile Franco-Ontarian community, which is almost as large as the Anglophone community in Quebec, but has a fraction of the institutional support.
“I’m worried about the survival of the culture,” he says. “Assimilation rates in Ontario are 37 per cent and many of us have moved to Quebec.”
He believes that mobilization and protests is all his community can do now. “In Ontario we used to joke that if you aren’t in a committee or organization fighting for French’s survival, you’ve already assimilated.”
While the current reaction to the news from the Quebec government and Quebecers themselves has been intense and overwhelmingly supportive of Franco-Ontarians, it hasn't always been consistent. There have been times when Canada's francophone communities have been left all alone with no support from the country's only French-speaking province.
Even though francophones in the rest of Canada face a much larger threat of assimilation, Quebec failed to back them up during a Supreme Court challenge in 2015 about access to education for a minority official language community. At the time, the Montreal Gazette reported that Quebec was concerned that it might "have to broaden access to English-language schools on its turf."
“Quebecers haven’t always been there for their francophone brethren outside of the province and have often been quite inward looking,” says Sullivan. “It sometimes feels like the general attitude has been, ‘we’re writing you off and we’re just concentrating on our own problems.’ It would be nice to see more francophone Quebecers take an interest in this."
Quebec writer Yves Beauchemin once controversially referred to the Franco-Ontarian community as "warm corpses" (« cadavres encore chauds ») who had no chance of surviving as a community. This is hardly the best way to highlight what was causing Franco-Ontarians to lose their clout in the country's largest province.
Ottawa-based Julie Lalonde, whose hometown of Sudbury, Ontario has the highest population of francophones outside of Quebec, comes from generations of Franco-Ontarians. She’s furious, but not surprised at Ford’s cuts.
"He’s been disrespectful to my community before and has never seemed concerned about his complete lack of French," she says. "But this decision seems like such an unnecessary slap in the face to us. Our institutions are not that well-funded to begin with, so it’s not like he’s saving millions of dollars. If we don’t resist and fight, the gains that we worked so hard for will be lost."
Lalonde is particularly incensed by the cancellation of the promised French university. “So much work went into creating the blueprint for this, and I truly hope this creates a huge backlash and he realizes that he underestimated how many people would be angry about this. There are a lot of rural francophones in Ontario and many do vote Conservative and so this isn’t good for him."
Asked what this feels like, Lalonde doesn’t hold back.
"I’m furious, my family is furious. I grew up on the stories about my elders fighting for their kids to have access to French education. Franco-Ontarian moms have been fighting for a long time. I hope they mobilize, and I hope Quebecers have our backs. Bombardier’s comments [the Quebec journalist recently claimed that only a few francophones remain in Ontario and that no one speaks French in Manitoba anymore] allow people like Ford to erase us. You enable him to dismiss us. Quebecers, either have our backs or just own up to the fact that you don’t care about la francophonie and you only care about la culture Québécoise."
I just read this and I’m sobbing.— Julie S. Lalonde (@JulieSLalonde) November 16, 2018
My hometown of Sudbury has the highest population of French people outside of Quebec. I’m a proud franco-ontarienne and Ford Nation has just killed our future. https://t.co/RSrgHnL0Gq
This is reason #97272 why Quebecois erasure of French Canadians makes my blood boil.— Julie S. Lalonde (@JulieSLalonde) November 16, 2018
Nobody has to fight harder to preserve their French than people who live outside of Quebec, and yet the goddamn province keeps erasing our existence which enables people like Ford.
In the meantime, the premier's personal cell phone has reportedly been ringing off the hook with complaints from Franco-Ontarians. He has been calling some of them back to say that there are other minorities in Ontario such as people of Chinese and Italian origin, but that the province couldn't please everybody, the Ottawa Citizen reported on Nov. 17.
“Listen, I think Mr. Ford needs a history lesson about bilingualism and the linguistic duality of the country," Mélanie Joly, the federal minister responsible for official languages, told reporters on Tuesday. "I invite him to look at history books.”
Newly-minted Quebec Premier François Legault has also voiced his displeasure during his first face-to-face meeting with Ford in Toronto.
“I made it clear to Mr. Ford that I didn’t like that francophones were being compared to Chinese or other cultures," Legault said at Queen's Park on Monday. "I told him that we are one of the two founding peoples of Canada, so we have to expect services to be delivered."
Dorner understands the direct link of pain connecting Ford’s recent decision with decades of a community’s struggles to exist and survive.
“When Doug Ford makes decisions targeting Franco-Ontarians, cutting institutions that have been acquired through multi-generational efforts of cultural preservation, it brings up memories of past struggles,” she explains.
“One thing is certain, though,” she defiantly snaps back, “more than three hundred years of French in Ontario isn't going to end with Doug Ford.”
If you’ve made it this far, you must care about in-depth and responsible journalism. How about supporting more articles like this one. Get 60% off during our Black Friday sale (only $55.99, reg. $139.99) for access to Canada’s top investigations on energy, climate, the environment and more. If you’re already a subscriber, please consider gifting a subscription, just in time for the holiday season.