More than 5,000 people at approximately 40 different demonstrations in Ontario Saturday were expected to protest the Progressive Conservative government’s cuts to French-language services.
About 150 of those protesters were found in Holland Landing, in front of Grist Mill Plaza, where York-Simcoe MPP Caroline Mulroney’s riding office is located. The consensus on Mount Albert Road Saturday was that Mulroney, who is also the attorney general and minister of Francophone services, isn’t doing her job.
Nathalie Peltier, board president of Association Francophone de la région de York, said the dialogue with the MPP — and the government as a whole — has been more of a monologue.
“Here, in York, we’ve sent many emails and we’ve called Ms. Mulroney many times since she’s been elected and she never even returned our calls or emails,” Peltier said. “So, when she says that she listens to Francophones and talks to them, it’s obviously not the people of her community because we haven’t heard from her yet.”
Saturday’s rally featured many participants from other ridings, including a number of people who had travelled short distance from Newmarket and Aurora, as well as further points south.
Peltier, as a Holland Landing resident who is a constituent in York-Simcoe, said she feels she is not being served by her MPP.
Possibly the biggest issue for those protesting was the cancellation of a French-language university, which had been set to open in 2020. In cancelling the university, the provincial government specified “the fiscal realities of our province's finances prohibit a new stand-alone French Language University right now.”
Mulroney’s press secretary, in response to a call requesting comment on the protest and the actions affecting the province’s more than 600,000 Francophones, directed NewmarketToday to comments Mulroney made during a recent Question Period and a press release issued from Premier Doug Ford's office Nov. 23.
In the press release, Ford calls Mulroney his "all-star Minister" and thanks her for her advocacy on behalf of Franco-Ontarians. The release also outlines three new provincial policy changes:
- Make the Office of Francophone Affairs the Ministry of Francophone Affairs
- The Office of the Premier will hire a senior policy advisor responsible for Francophone affairs
- Creating the position of French language services commissioner, under the ombudsman's office, to keep independence in investigations, improve provision of French-language services, and encourage compliance with the French Language Services Act
"I am looking forward to the day where we are in a financial position to proceed with projects like the French Language University — projects that serve to unify our community and preserve our language and culture," said Mulroney in the news release. "I will continue to support models of education that meet the needs of francophone students and the Francophone community."
Making sure the proposed university eventually becomes reality is why Marilena and Sebastien Lacroix brought their three children with them from Toronto for the protest.
“(We’re here) in solidarity with all Franco-Ontarians, particularly our children, who attend French-language schools,” Marilena said. “We want to make sure they have access to all of the services everyone else has.”
While the Lacroix family is fearful what the cuts may mean for Francophone culture in future generations, many of the participants Saturday saw the recent moves by the government as harkening back to past assimilation attempts.
“It’s bringing back a lot of old hurts from a long time ago,” said Sylvie Lessard, a Newmarket resident who was one of the local organizers for Saturday’s event.
“Franco-Ontarians have had to fight for their rights in the past,” including a threat to close down the Montfort Hospital in Ottawa by the provincial Tories in the mid-1990s, she added. “We’re just trying to survive as a culture. We’re a founding nation of this country, and we’re just trying to be here and be proud.”
And in the eyes of one former MPP, it’s a culture nearly all provincial governments since late 1960s have tried to bolster, when legislation was first introduced to create publicly funded French-language secondary schools, making the current actions at Queen’s Park seem all the more counter-intuitive.
“Since then, virtually every government has tried to increase French language services,” said Charles Beer, MPP for York North from 1987 to 1995, including a short stint as minister responsible for Francophone affairs. “What everyone was trying to do was build… and then this happens. Both symbolically, and in real terms, it moves the yard sticks back.”
A general consensus among those at the rally was how the cuts seemed to come without warning.
Peltier recalled being at the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO) meeting in Richmond Hill earlier in the fall where MPP Amanda Simard, among others, told Francophones the promises regarding the French-language university would be fulfilled. Now, a month later, the university is cancelled and Simard has resigned from the PC Party, choosing to sit as an independent.
Peltier feels Mulroney could learn something from Simard, standing up for her heritage as opposed to being another supporter of the premier.
“It’s really disappointing… Mulroney knows what Canada is about,” Peltier said. “Honestly, she should have done what Ms. Simard did this week.”
But from that shock has come a new desire to be heard among the Franco-Ontarians not just in York-Simcoe, but across the province.
“We were under the impression that our institutions were in place, evolving and growing, which is not the case anymore,” said Yves Lévesque, a Newmarket resident at the demonstration. “We need to do something about it. As you can see, it’s an important mobilization.”
“It’s been great to get everyone to rally,” Lessard said. “It’s very heartwarming. I actually feel like I’m part of a bigger family now.”
Patrick Bales is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @patrickbales.