Why Ontario once tried to ban French in schools

By Daniel Kitts - Published on Feb 25, 2016
School children protesting against Regulation 17 in front of Brébeuf school in Ottawa, 1916.



When my Franco-Ontarian grandmother was a young child growing up in Ottawa, the teaching of French was virtually banned across Ontario.

At a time when parents are fighting to get their children into highly coveted French Immersion classes, this might sound a bit surprising — but Regulation 17, enforced from 1912 to 1927, did just that. It was a chapter in the province’s history that not only pitted English against French, but also Catholic against Catholic. On two occasions, the Pope even got involved. 

“Regulation 17 showed a disregard for Franco-Ontarian identity, and equality and on behalf of the government of Ontario, I offer an apology,” Premier Kathleen Wynne said in the legislature on Monday. It marked the first time the government had officially apologized for trying to prevent French language education a century ago. 

The impacts of this 15-year period are still felt today. It helped permanently weaken the presence of French in some parts of the province, while strengthening francophone culture in others.

Marie-Eve Pépin, vice-chair of l’Association canadienne-française de l’Ontario du grand Sudbury, the organization that spearheaded the call for an apology, says it is important to acknowledge the damage caused by Regulation 17 despite the passage of time.

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“The right to a French education in Ontario is a right for francophones, and 100 years ago the province took away that right,” she says. “Today we recognize that it was wrong to take that right away.”

Passed under then-premier James P. Whitney, the regulation prohibited primary schools from using French as a language of instruction beyond Grade 2, capped the amount of teaching time in French for primary school students to one hour per day, and permitted French-language education only at the specific request of parents.

University of Ottawa historian Michel Bock says the fight over Regulation 17 was a fight older than Canada itself: that of English vs. French, and what place the French language and Catholicism had outside Quebec.

Why Ontario chose to act in this way in 1912 had to do with a noticeable influx of francophones into the province at the turn of the 20th century. Within a few decades, Bock says, the francophone population had doubled from five to roughly 10 per cent of the provincial makeup.

While 10 per cent still constitutes a small minority, this French presence was concentrated in certain geographic areas that were conspicuous to a nervous English majority.

“The counties of Prescott and Russell in eastern Ontario had been predominantly anglophone immediately following Confederation,” Bock says. “By the early 20th century, they were predominantly francophone.”

A pretext for the regulation was concerns over the quality of education being taught in French. Bock says there was some truth to this: many of those teaching in French were nuns directly from Quebec who had not gone through the kind of training other teachers in Ontario were expected to complete.

“[But] the solution was not to get rid of bilingual schools. The solution was to create institutions and teachers’ colleges geared towards fulfilling the need of this bilingual school system,” he says.

Bock calls the implementation of Regulation 17 the last of the great post-Confederation schools crises, such as the famous Manitoba Schools Question, in which provincial governments tried to do away with Catholic influence outside Quebec. But what made Ontario’s case slightly different, he says, was that it not only pitted English against French, but Catholic against Catholic.

Irish Catholics wanted to keep Regulation 17 an issue that targeted the French-majority bilingual schools, rather than one that targeted English-only Catholic schools as well. In other provinces, efforts to assimilate francophone Catholics ended up targeting both types of schools, Bock says. In turn, the francophone community bristled at Irish efforts to ensure Regulation 17 remained a French-specific rather than a Catholic school issue.

After furious lobbying at the Vatican by both sides, Bock says, Pope Benedict XV sided with the Irish Catholics. Bock says the Pope believed Catholics should be united as a faith, and that issues of language were secondary.

Still, the francophone community resisted. To thwart government efforts to enforce the regulation, parents would sometimes tell their children to leave their classrooms if the school inspector came, making it difficult for the inspector to judge whether French was still being taught in classrooms.

The most famous confrontation was the “Battle of the Hatpins.” On January 29, 1916, francophone mothers outside an Ottawa elementary school prevented inspectors from entering by brandishing their long hatpins as weapons. Nickel Belt NDP MPP France Gélinas has introduced a private member’s bill to have every January 29 officially recognized as Battle of the Hatpins Day.

The government stopped enforcing Regulation 17 in 1927 and repealed it in 1944. But Pépin says the measure caused irreparable harm to the francophone community by cutting off an entire generation from learning in their own language. Some francophones never learned how to write in French and, as a result, opted to send their children to English-language schools.

“Once assimilation takes place, it’s over: French doesn’t come back as the family’s mother tongue,” Pépin says.

In particular, Regulation 17 helped weaken the francophone presence in southwestern Ontario, where French-speaking parents in places such as Windsor were less resistant to the idea of sending their children to English-only schools. Smaller French-speaking communities in northern Ontario also often found it hard to resist the government’s efforts to assimilate them.

But it also helped entrench a sense of Franco-Ontarian community in others. Particularly in the Ottawa area, it spurred the creation of francophone institutions and newspapers, including the daily Le Droit, which continues to publish today.  That’s one reason why many Ottawa-area natives such as my grandmother were relatively unaffected by Regulation 17 and were able to pass on their French language and culture to their children.

Nevertheless, Franco-Ontarian citizens were still made to feel like second-class citizens well after Regulation 17’s withdrawal. Full public funding wasn’t offered to French-language secondary schools until 1968, meaning parents who wanted their children to complete their education in French had to pay out of pocket for the privilege.

While welcome by Franco-Ontarian leaders, it is unclear what this week’s apology means for the community in the long term. Bock says this kind of recognition of past wrongs may stay simply symbolic or be used to further certain causes, whether it’s official bilingualism in Ottawa, official bilingualism province-wide, or the creation of a French-language university in Ontario

“The Franco-Ontarian community has a prerogative to see what they choose to see,” he says. 

Image credit: Fonds ACFO, French Canadian Culture Research CTR, u Ottawa/ /ameriquefrancaise.org

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