Does Ontario actually need a French-language university? 

It may be a dream come true for many, but few are asking whether the demand for a francophone university really exists
By Steve Paikin - Published on Mar 03, 2020
Mélanie Joly, Dyane Adam, Caroline Mulroney, and Ross Romano at a signing ceremony for the new Université de l'Ontario français last week in downtown Toronto. (Steve Paikin)

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For four decades, members of Ontario’s francophone community have dreamed of having their own French-language university. The province already has three bilingual universities (Glendon College at York University, the University of Ottawa, and Laurentian University, in Sudbury). But a solely French campus has always seemed out of reach.

In 2017, the previous Liberal government, under Premier Kathleen Wynne, announced its intention to proceed with such a school. But the dream suffered a terrible blow in November 2018, when the current Progressive Conservative government decided that the province couldn’t afford it and pulled the plug.

But somehow the dream refused to die. At one point, not too long ago, one federal and two provincial cabinet ministers (and three deputy ministers as well) ended up on a phone call that lasted until 3 a.m., trying to determine whether the project could be salvaged. Normally, the federal government doesn’t fund the operations of universities, which are regulated by the provinces. But this situation was different.

And, so, in September 2021, the new Université de l'Ontario français will begin accepting as many as 1,000 students at its campus at the foot of Jarvis Street in downtown Toronto. Dignitaries gathered at the campus last week to sign the official agreements making it so.

The announcement wouldn’t have happened without an unprecedented arrangement between the federal and provincial governments. The feds have agreed to fund the first four years of the university’s operations, to the tune of $63 million. The provincial government will then be required to do the same for the next four years, and thereafter.

The federal minister for economic development and official languages, Mélanie Joly, said that the agreement could serve as a precedent for other arrangements across the country.

This is one of those announcements that looks like a win-win-win for all levels of government. The federal Liberals can demonstrate their national-unity chops; the provincial Tories can show a commitment to post-secondary education and the francophone community, neither of which has exactly felt the love from Queen’s Park since Doug Ford became premier in June 2018. And Toronto mayor John Tory (speaking much-improved French, thanks to daily scrums with francophone reporters) reminded people at the signing ceremony that the province’s capital city remains a multicultural beacon and universal home for all peoples.

Two provincial cabinet ministers attended the announcement:

Caroline Mulroney (the francophone-affairs minister) and Ross Romano (the training, colleges, and universities minister, who, strangely and quite noticably, didn’t speak a single sentence of French during his speech).  Of course, everyone was in too celebratory a mood to point out that it had been Mulroney who had announced the cancellation of this project a little over a year ago, saying the precarious status of Ontario’s finances couldn’t justify it. To be sure, the federal government’s assistance alleviates some of that concern, but it’s for only four years.

Also on hand and watching from the audience was Amanda Simard, who was elected as a PC MPP in 2018 but quit the caucus because she felt the Tories didn’t give a damn about serving the francophone community — she now sits with the Liberals. Simard had been Mulroney’s parliamentary assistant, and yet she said at the time that she’d been completely blindsided by the 2018 announcement to cancel the university and eliminate the position of the French-language services commissioner. She was all smiles last Wednesday and even applauded when her former Tory colleagues spoke.

There have been few occasions for Ontario’s francophone community to feel genuinely loved by its provincial government, so the joy at this announcement was both sincere and palpable. But journalists are not cheerleaders. We are supposed to ask the difficult, uncomfortable questions. So let’s ask the number-one question on that list right now:

Do we actually need this?

Is there enough demand for a unilingual French university in Toronto? Are there enough academic and administrative experts around to staff the place?

I remember once asking a former Ontario deputy minister for colleges and universities how he saw his job.

“I spend 80 per cent of my time trying to stop stupid stuff from happening,” the deputy said. When I asked what was on the list of “stupid stuff,” the French-language university was at the top. This official felt there wasn’t the demand, the budget, or the available talent to staff such an institution.

If you ask the francophone community for an official reaction to this new university, you’ll get nothing but smiles all round. But dig a little deeper, and the responses are more nuanced. For example, even in a study done by proponents of the project, the numbers are curious. Only 13 per cent of grade 11 and 12 students currently attending a French-language high school say they’d prefer to attend a French-only university; 49 per cent of those surveyed expressed a preference for attending a bilingual institution. And 20 per cent wanted to attend an English-only university. That seems like a fairly tepid level of enthusiasm from the very cohort this new university is designed to attract.

Furthermore, talk to officials at Glendon, Laurentian, or Ottawa, and they’ll tell you there simply isn’t enough demand among the 700,000 Ontario francophones (one-third of whom are in Toronto) for the existing French-language programs they offer, let alone for a standalone French university. They also expect that the new Université de l'Ontario français will poach their staff and students, diluting their institutions and making their fiscal circumstances even more precarious. (Full disclosure: I’m the chancellor at Laurentian. It’s strictly a ceremonial position, and I haven’t taken part in any official discussions about this.)

This may be especially tricky for Glendon, whose campus is just 12 kilometres away from the new university. Only a little more than a decade ago, Glendon received a $20 million injection from the province to establish the university as a “centre for excellence” in French-language education. (The Toronto French School is right next door, creating a nice cluster there.) It’s hard to see how the new university won’t adversely affect all of that.

“For this new university to succeed and not threaten Glendon College, it’ll be incumbent on it to offer very different courses,” Paul Lefebvre, the Liberal MP for Sudbury, told me yesterday.

For her part, Joly says that the new university’s unilingual status and governance structure by and for French speakers will demonstrate to francophones across the country that Canada works. 

Of course, there’s always the option of making the full-court press to recruit foreign students. Other Ontario universities have discovered the value of admitting thousands of foreign students, who can often pay five times the tuition rates that Ontario kids pay. Colleges and universities have been hugely dependent on those higher tuitions to make up for declining government funding and tuition freezes enjoyed by domestic students.

"The new Université de l'Ontario français is a victory for Franco-Ontarians, a historic step forward that will help even more Canadians learn, live, and thrive in whichever official language they choose,” Joly added at the historic signing ceremony.

Maybe so. But as the expression goes: “Expérience passe science.” Or as we’d say in English: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

A fancy way of saying, "We’ll see."

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