The Ontario government this week announced something many in the francophone community have long demanded: a new university devoted to teaching in French exclusively.
Based on recommendations of a report the government commissioned, the university will be located in central or southwestern Ontario (likely Toronto) and will be “governed by and for Francophones.” The Liberals will introduce legislation for the school’s creation in the coming months, with plans to welcome the first cohort of students in 2020.
For many, the response might be: Why? Ontario is home to 611,500 Francophones — less than 5 per cent of the population. What’s more, there are already several options for francophone students wanting to attend university classes taught in their mother tongue. The University of Ottawa and Laurentian University each offer dozens of degree programs in French. There’s also the French-language Université de Hearst, which has three small campuses in northern Ontario (it’s affiliated with Laurentian).
“The truth is, the franco-ontarien minority has long received more than their share of tax money to ensure access to education in their mother tongue and the numbers show they’re getting it,” wrote Maclean’s columnist Josh Dehaas in 2013. “They should be happy their fellow taxpayers have been so generous and stop demanding more.”
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France Gélinas, the New Democrat MPP for Nickel Belt, in Greater Sudbury, begs to differ. She’s long fought for a new French university, arguing that such an institution would provide a level of education that an English university offering courses in French can’t.
Just look at French elementary and high schools, Gélinas says: the quality of education improved enormously when the Mike Harris government created separate French school boards, because those boards better understand what francophone students need.
“I can tell you that in Northern Ontario lots of little communities now have French schools that would have never had them had we continued under the English school boards,” she says.
Gélinas says French speakers in Ontario have historically faced discrimination, including through such policies as Regulation 17, which severely restricted public school French lessons from 1912 to 1927.
“The consequences of that are still here today if you look into my parents’ generation,” she says. “A lot of them still speak French but cannot write it, cannot read it, because they were never allowed to go to school in their own language.”
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Along with the NDP, the Tories have also expressed support for the creation of a new francophone university, which means the idea has all-party support at Queen’s Park.
But why put the new school in Toronto? The largest concentration of the province’s francophones live in eastern Ontario, around Ottawa.
It all comes down to demand, says Dyane Adam, the former federal commissioner of official languages who chaired the group that put the report together: “Here in the region of Toronto, we have nearly half a million that speak French, so it’s not minimal.”
Central and southwestern Ontario are the only parts of the province seeing significant growth in their French-speaking populations, and half of Ontario’s francophones will live there within 10 years, the report says. The regions are also creating more high-skilled jobs, some of which require bilingualism.
Adam says that while students in other parts of the province have choices when it comes to pursuing university programs in French, options are almost nonexistent in the GTA.
“The needs are here,” she says. “There’s a need for university training in French here because of the gap … between what is being offered in the north, in the east and here in the centre-southwest.”
She adds that the new university could partner with other institutions, such as Ottawa and Laurentian, to provide more French-language instruction in other parts of the province.
Still, Gélinas says that by focusing on central and southwestern Ontario, the proposal doesn’t go far enough.
“Right now, if you’re a Franco-Ontarian in many parts of Ontario, you have no access to education in French,” she says. “The people who speak English in Thunder Bay can choose to stay in Thunder Bay and study in Thunder Bay … [The same option] is not available in French.”