This week parliament rose in recognition of the last surviving Mohawk code-talker whose unique language skills helped the allies win World War II. As the entire chamber celebrated this individual’s remarkable accomplishment, I was struck how our linguistic diversity can be a source of pride that is celebrated in many instances, but can also be a source of contention in others. Proof of the latter can be found in Ontario’s ‘cost-cutting’ measures that targeted the province’s French speakers in a way that has galvanized that community in defense of their identity.
The fallout from the Premier’s decision to abolish the Office of the French-Language Services Commissioner and to abandon the province’s commitment to build a new French language university in Toronto made it abundantly clear that Franco Ontarians are not willing to merely accept these developments. There is no doubt the cuts will have a detrimental effect on the preservation of French in the province and offer no guarantee of savings over the long-term. Perhaps, most worrisome is how the provincial government seemed to be treating Ontario’s French speaking community as an expense that can no longer be afforded.
For the 600,000 Franco-Ontarians (the second largest French community in Canada) affected, the importance of French in Ontario is not limited to economics. There are constitutional rights to be considered as well. French is an official language which means every province has a duty to preserve and promote French by supporting new and existing institutions. By removing the body responsible for the protection of the language, Ontario puts the province at risk of having to spend money on court challenges that can often be avoided with a watchdog in place.
So far, the cost of the new French Language University of Ontario and the Office of the French-Language Services Commissioner have been the only justifying factors cited for their abolition, What’s lost in the argument are the socio-economic benefits such institutions provide for Ontario. There’s little doubt that a linguistically diverse workforce is beneficial for the province and we must remember that not all students would have enrolled as native speakers. At the moment, nearly 500,000 students are enrolled in French immersion programs across the province. Many of those will go on to post-secondary studies in French as well. This is not a passing fad and the university was meant to address capacity issues that force Ontario students to study out of province.
But despite good arguments to reverse their decision, the province is digging in on the university and re-inventing the French-Language Services Commissioner as a small part of the Ombudsmen’s office. These cuts to services and protections aimed at the second most spoken language in Canada make it legitimate to question whether “cost-cutting” will stop at the Franco-Ontarian community or if there are other minority groups that will be targeted too?
In parliament, New Democrats called on the Prime Minister, who has an obligation to protect official language communities across the country, to turn words into action by announcing that the government will commit to work with Ontario and pay their fair share for the University’s project. That was followed up by a rare meeting of all federal party leaders who agreed there must be a strong response to Ontario’s cuts. At the same time, avenues are being explored to find a path that will allow construction to begin on the French Language University of Ontario.
What became clear in the last few weeks is that more people understand the importance of a linguistically diverse nation than don’t. That fact should be coming into focus for the government in Ontario who should take a long look at their decision and consider whether there might not be another path to fiscal balance that doesn’t cost so much down the road.
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