The issues affecting the services offered to Franco-Ontarians gave rise to lively discussions during the only debate in French in the Ontario election. Four candidates presented their vision of the Francophonie in the province two weeks before polling day.
The debate brought together Minister of Francophone Affairs Caroline Mulroney of the Progressive Conservative Party, her former parliamentary assistant, Liberal Amanda Simard, New Democrat France Gélinas and Green Party candidate Cara Des Granges. Although they sit in different caucuses, these last three candidates have often found common ground in their opposition to the Conservative cuts.
The measures taken by the Ford government in November 2018 to reduce the budget deficit shook thousands of Franco-Ontarians. The province then eliminated the independent French language services commissioner — the watchdog of Franco-Ontarians — and the plan for a francophone university in the province. Four years later, the debate showed that the wounds were still not healed in the political class.
Caroline Mulroney defended the decision to eliminate the position of independent commissioner, arguing that the person holding the role today in the office of the Ontario Ombudsman, Kelly Burke, has the same powers. Former commissioner François Boileau, however, contradicts the minister’s remarks in his latest report. “François Boileau did not need to wait for complaints,” said France Gélinas of the NPD.
Facing her former colleague in the Conservative caucus, which she left in late November 2018 over her opposition to the cuts, Amanda Simard said Premier Doug Ford did not know the difference between the position of French Language Services Commissioner and the Ministry of Francophone Affairs at the time of the cuts. “It’s not reassuring to have a government that doesn’t know the difference,” she said.
Doug Ford’s government would have “betrayed” Franco-Ontarians by cutting their services in November 2018, according to Amanda Simard. The comment sparked a strong reaction from Caroline Mulroney, for whom the Conservatives did more for Francophones than the Liberals during their fifteen years in power, between 2003 and 2018. “You are a propaganda machine,” replied Amanda. Simard.
Message from the Chiefs
It was Doug Ford himself who launched hostilities in the hour-long debate moderated by Gabrielle Sabourin, from Radio-Canada, and Rudy Chabannes, from Groupe Média TFO. The Conservative leader spoke only in English (with the exception of a “thank you”) to some 600,000 Franco-Ontarians, describing them as a “precious asset” for Ontario. The other three leaders spoke in French, although they were reading a text.
This is the first election campaign in 50 years without a bilingual leader in the province, but the leaders have often replied that their teams have enough bilingual candidates to meet the needs of Franco-Ontarians. These are the candidates who found themselves in front of the television cameras on Tuesday evening.
The debaters tackled the issue of the cost of living, affordability and the management of the pandemic, often repeating the comments made by their leaders on Monday evening. But they showed their colors in exchanges dealing specifically with the Francophonie, such as Francophone immigration and the sustainability of post-secondary education in French in northern Ontario.
After the elimination of 29 programs in French at Laurentian University in Sudbury, many Franco-Ontarians believe that the protection of post-secondary education in the north of the province depends on the transformation of the University of Sudbury — an institution formerly associated with Laurentian — a university “by and for” Francophones. The Conservatives have still not funded the project.
Caroline Mulroney explained that her government was instead waiting for the evaluation of the Post-Secondary Education Quality Assessment Commission, an independent body that determines whether universities can offer programs. “Ontario put zero, not a penny,” lamented France Gélinas. At the end of April, the federal government, for its part, financed the project to the tune of 1.9 billion at the request of the provincial government.
Train the next generation
France Gélinas wants the future francophone university in Sudbury to offer a teaching program to train more francophone teachers. The shortage is a long-standing issue in the province. According to a study report released in 2021, the province needs to find 1,050 teachers every year for at least the next five years to fill the gap.
According to Caroline Mulroney, bachelor’s degrees in education in French could see the light of day in several establishments, including the University of French Ontario. The labor shortage, Caroline Mulroney dropped, “dates from the days of the Liberals”. The Conservatives lack vision retorted Amanda Simard, who wants universal access to French immersion. An “empty” promise according to Caroline Mulroney.
This story is supported by the Local Journalism Initiative, funded by the Government of Canada.