On Nov. 15, Finance Minister Vic Fideli delivered Ontario’s fall economic statement. Premier Doug Ford likely expected a certain degree of backlash, considering the statement included tax breaks for the rich and ending rent controls on new properties. Indeed, riding out backlash has become routine for the still-fresh Progressive Conservative government. However, there is one front where Ford seems to have been taken off guard by the scale and intensity of the resistance he is facing: cuts affecting Franco-Ontarians.

The position of French Language Services Commissioner has been cut, its roles and responsibilities folded into that of the Ombudsman’s office. Funding for the creation of a French-language university in Toronto was also cancelled, contrary to Ford’s promise in July that plans for the university were still moving ahead. These cuts are part of Ford’s general program of austerity—the positions of environmental commissioner and child and youth advocate were also eliminated, along with plans to build three satellite campuses in the Greater Toronto Area. However, these cuts to francophone services must also be understood as attacks on a historically oppressed minority within the Canadian state.

Since Ford’s announcement that he would be cutting francophone services in Ontario, there have been protests across the province at MPP offices. Before exploring the current resistance efforts, it is important to understand the history of Franco-Ontarians.

Franco-Ontario: A history of resistance

Since the fall of New France in 1763, French Canadians have been largely treated as second-class citizens. Commenting on the tensions between French and English Canadians in 1839, Lord Durham wrote, “The language, the laws and the character of the North American continent are English, and every other race than the English race is in a state of inferiority.” It was with the aim of smothering the French population with a greater number of English Canadians that Upper and Lower Canada were unified in 1841. After Confederation, Quebec was deliberately underdeveloped, and francophones formed a definite underclass. In 1961, the salary of an average francophone was 52 per cent that of the average anglophone. But the history and struggles of French Canadians do not begin and end with Quebec. Throughout the mid-1700s, French Acadians were forcibly expelled from the Maritimes by the British. In the West, the struggle of the Métis in the 1800s included the fight for language rights in addition to control over their land.

For their part, Franco-Ontarians have lived in the region for 400 years, predating English settlers. In 1886, Toronto newspaper The Mail described French schools as “the nurseries not merely of an alien tongue but of alien customs, of alien sentiments, and … a wholly alien people.” This sentiment dominated the provincial government and was pervasive in English Canadian society. In 1912, the province issued Regulation 17, which restricted the use of French in schools. Teachers were only allowed to speak French to a pupil if that child spoke no English, and even then only in the child’s first year of school. It was followed up with Regulation 18, which threatened teachers who refused to comply with the regulation with losing their certification, and school boards with losing funding. These threats especially impacted isolated communities, particularly in the North, and forced them to submit to the regulation. As a result, many Franco-Ontarians did not learn to speak or write their own language. Michel Bock, a history professor at the University of Ottawa and author of Le siècle du Règlement 17, said, “This is one generation that was essentially lost.” Regulation 17, and similar laws elsewhere in Canada, resulted in the Anglicization of 75 per cent of francophones outside of Quebec.

Nonetheless, there continued to be fierce resistance, with teachers and students hiding texts from school inspectors, and some schools openly dubbing themselves “écoles de la résistance.” In 1917 the fight dovetailed with the conscription crisis, which polarized the country between French and English: the French not wanting to die overseas for the British Empire, and the Anglo-Canadian state and press doing all they could to portray the French as cowardly and traitorous. Franco-Ontarians eventually won the right to speak their language in schools, and the regulation was repealed in 1927. The protests and struggles around Regulation 17 gave birth to francophone organizations such as the Francophone Assembly of Ontario and the newspaper Le Droit, which continued to lead the fight for language rights in Ontario throughout the 20th century and into the present day.

And the fight for French language services did continue. The 1970s saw a series of student strikes to secure francophone high schools in majority francophone communities. In 1997 the Progressive Conservative government, during its wave of hospital closures, tried to shut down Montfort hospital in Ottawa, the only francophone hospital west of Quebec. The attempt spawned a five-year battle led by the grassroots campaign SOS Montfort. The fight was eventually won in the courts, but included mobilizations in the streets, with a rally of 10,000 at Lansdowne Park, and at one point, 2,000 students forming a human chain around the hospital.

Today, there are 622,000 Franco-Ontarians, or 4.7 per cent of the total population of the province, according to the current definition which includes all who speak French at home. Ontario has the largest population of francophones outside of Quebec. Though there used to be large francophone populations in southwestern Ontario, such as in Windsor, these communities have come under the pressures of assimilation. It is in northern Ontario where there continues to be large percentages of the population who speak French; at the same time, there is an increasing number of immigrants from French-speaking countries settling in urban centres, even in traditionally “anglophone” cities such as Toronto. While the number of francophones in the province is rising in absolute terms, it is shrinking as a percentage of the overall population. As the delivery of services in French is currently dependent on francophones making up at least 10 per cent of the population in a given area, the drive to preserve the language, to encourage Franco-Ontarians to stay in the province, and to attract francophone immigration is felt particularly sharply by the community. In this context, the threat posed to francophone services is a threat to the viability of the Franco-Ontarian community itself, as it will encourage French speakers to either assimilate or move out of province.

For Franco-Ontarians, the French Language Services Commissioner represents more than just a bureaucratic watchdog. The post is seen as a voice for the community within the government. The Commissioner ensures that the French Language Services Act—which mandates that in areas where at least 10 per cent of the population is francophone, residents can receive services from provincial institutions in their language—is followed, a hard-fought gain after more than a century of being denied basic services in French.

A francophone university is long overdue in Ontario. With much smaller francophone populations, New Brunswick and Manitoba both have French-language universities. Quebec is home to roughly 750,000 anglophones, and has three anglophone universities. While Ontario has three French colleges, and six bilingual universities, these have limited programming, and students who want to continue their studies in French often have to leave the province. The establishment of a French university in Ontario is a goal decades in the making, and is a continuation of the struggle for French education that started in 1912.

Cross-Canada implications

Ford’s cuts have sent ripples throughout the country. They made front-page news in Quebec, and anglophones in Quebec have expressed solidarity with Franco-Ontarians. The newly elected right-wing premier, François Legault, met with Ford personally to encourage him to relent, to no avail.

Francophones in other provinces feel at risk as well, concerned that Ford will set a trend that sweeps across the nation. The president of the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities, Jean Johnson, said in an interview, “This is a direct attack on the viability and sustainability of our communities.”

This is especially true in New Brunswick, where the Progressive Conservatives will soon form a minority government, relying on the right-populist People’s Alliance Party to stay in power. The People’s Alliance has been calling for the elimination of their own Official Language Commissioner, and indeed the end of official bilingualism in general. They have been particularly focused on ending bilingual ambulance service. While the rights of language communities are officially entrenched in the New Brunswick constitution, the position of Commissioner has not been filled, and there are fears that soon-to-be-premier Blaine Higgs could amalgamate the position with the office of the Ombudsman, as in Ontario. Moreover, the office of the commissioner has faced underfunding since 2002. Higgs himself has a history of opposing bilingualism, as a founding member of the right-wing Confederation of Regions Party in the 1990s.

In Nova Scotia, Acadians have been fighting against the redrawing of electoral districts that diluted their constituencies for six years. Manitoba recently abolished its assistant deputy minister position for the bureau of French education. There are concerns that with the impending likely election of the United Conservative Party in Alberta, francophone rights in that province will be next on the chopping block.

Ford’s cuts: Austerity meets Anglo-chauvinism

If Doug Ford was surprised by how Franco-Ontarians responded to his cuts, it might be because he didn’t know they existed. In an interview with Radio-Canada earlier this year, aimed at a Franco-Ontarian audience, Ford was asked about learning French. He said, “I think it would be important to be able to communicate with a part of our country that speaks French. I love Quebec. I love Quebecers. They’re passionate.”

Ford’s entire approach is that of someone who considers francophone issues to be an afterthought, if he considers them at all. As a city councillor, Ford voted against the creation of a French committee on a municipal level. On his first day in office, Ford eliminated the new Department of Francophone Affairs. Breaking with tradition, he used no French in his first speech from the throne. The French Language Services Commissioner himself, François Boileau, only found out that his position was being axed 30 minutes before the announcement was made.

The elimination of the commissioner is especially nonsensical, as the work of the office will still be done, and will presumably still cost money. By placing the same duties under the purview of the Ombudsman, enforcement of the French Language Services Act will be less effective, but there is no indication that it will be less expensive. In any case, the budget of the commissioner was only $2.8 million a year. Even the cost of building a new university—estimated at $12 million—is only a drop in the bucket of the $15 billion in savings that Ford is looking to find. In addition, there is yet another cut that has mostly gone under the radar—three French-language educational magazines have been terminated, even though the money for these magazines came from the federal government in the form of a subsidy for French-language initiatives.

While there is no financial logic to these cuts, there is a political logic. They feed into a long-standing tactic of hitting out against what is perceived as a “privileged” minority in order to gain populist points, while dividing workers against each other. The People’s Alliance in New Brunswick is a classic example of this. The same “cost cutting” rhetoric has been used there as well. French-Canadians are a particularly easy target. Anyone who lived through the 1990s will remember the vitriol spewed in the Anglo-Canadian press, decrying the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence and demonizing the Quebecois people. One editorial from the Financial Post in 1996 exemplifies this rhetoric, saying of Quebecers, “They complain and moan and damage our economy. They conspire and combine to create a dream and French ethnocentric state. They rewrite history. They create all parts of claims for recent injustices. They irritate English-Canadians to help their cause. They are, in a word, despicable.” What is truly despicable is the Anglo-chauvinism that not only obscures a real history of oppression, but also sews divisions which benefit capitalist politicians on both sides of the divide. It diverts the anger of anglophone workers onto francophones and only benefits right-wing nationalists such as Legault who use the ensuing resentment to get support from francophone workers in Quebec. The poison of Anglo-chauvinism has cut across attempts to build united organizations and to spread working class struggle throughout the 20th century, as with the 1963 split in the NDP or during the 1972 Quebec general strike. Divisions between francophone and anglophone workers only serve the interests of their respective ruling classes.

As the leader of a government without a popular mandate, it is entirely in Ford’s interest to attempt to score cheap points at the expense of Franco-Ontarians. In an editorial in the National Post, Caroline Mulroney defended the cuts, attempting to pit the needs of the francophone community against those of the broader working class by saying that the province cannot afford a $12 million university on top of hospitals and roads. The fact that there was money enough to provide tax breaks to the wealthy is never questioned.

The struggle continues

The political consequences of these cuts for Ford’s government are almost certainly more significant than expected. Mulroney, the minister in charge of francophone affairs and therefore of selling the cuts to the francophone community, has been called on to resign, and political commentators are saying that her aspirations of leading the party are over. Amanda Simard, the one Franco-Ontarian in the Tory caucus, quit the party and is now sitting as an independent.

The issue is even causing headaches for federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Heading into an election next year, Scheer had been eager to have Doug Ford as an ally, especially when it came to opposing the Liberals carbon tax. Now, however, association with Ford risks alienating Quebec voters. Scheer criticized the cuts, and claimed that his party would always stand up for francophones, but he stopped short of saying that he would stand up to Ford himself. He did request a meeting of federal party leaders on French language rights, which amounted to a symbolic statement against Ford with no concrete outcome. Naturally, Trudeau’s Liberals have made hay denouncing Ford. While Ford had previously been in a position to play kingmaker, he is now a liability.

Of course, none of these politicians would have spoken out had it not been for the anger and organization of Franco-Ontarians themselves, who are the real driving force in this conflict.

A week after the cuts were initially announced, Ford was forced to backtrack to a small degree. His government made the already disgraced and mistrusted Mulroney minister of francophone affairs, elevating the portfolio back to a full ministerial position, and promised to hire a senior policy adviser. The government claimed to be making these minimal changes, which fall far short of restoring the independent commissioner’s office and fail to address the need for a French university at all, in recognition of the “significant and ongoing” contributions of the Franco-Ontarian community. This response was not significant enough for Franco-Ontarians, who continued with a planned day of protest on Dec. 1.

À la résistance!

The Franco-Ontarian community has put their history, experience, and organization to great use in mobilizing against Ford’s cuts. In the days after the Nov. 15 announcement, Le Droit ran daily letters and editorials on the need for organized resistance. In late November, hundreds of students from a total of 14 French secondary schools in Toronto and the GTA walked out of classes in protest. When it came to mass protest, the Francophone Assembly of Ontario (AFO) led the charge with the slogan “Resistance!”, organizing demonstrations in 40 communities across Ontario. In total, around 14,000 people participated, with the highest turnout being 5,000 in Ottawa, making it one of the largest demonstrations against Ford since he took office. “This is the first time in history that Franco-Ontarians have mobilized like this in every corner of the province,” said Gilles LeVasseur, a business and law professor at the University of Ottawa.

After such a fantastic demonstration, the discussion has turned to where the campaign goes next. The AFO says there will be a series of community round tables in the coming days. AFO president Carol Jolin still thinks it is possible to work with the Ford government, but more generally the organization has been turning to the federal Liberals for help, hoping that they will provide an alternative stream of funding. This tactic is a mistake. The issue is not one of finances, but one of politics. So long as austerity is on the agenda, no community is safe; so long as the marginalized turn to the ruling class for assistance, they will be sold out.

In fact, there are voices in the community calling to link up with other oppressed groups and with Ontarians in general. Representatives of Dialogue Canada wrote in Le Droit, “We need to form friendships in other parts of the population—new Canadians, Aboriginals—all minority groups in the same situation.” Stéphanie Chouinard, a political scientist from the Royal Military College of Canada who has been an outspoken commentator on Ford’s cuts, said, ”When I spoke in the English-language media, I felt less skepticism than a desire to understand. I think that Ontario’s Francophonie must send the message that the decisions that affect it are part of a wider movement of attacks against the most vulnerable, as seen with government measures that affect early childhood, social services…” The movement has already been joined by the Canadian Union of Public Employees Hospital Division, which represents over 40,000 workers in 60 hospitals across Ontario. While the Dec. 1 protests were impressive, Ford has shown no willingness to make further concessions. In the past, Franco-Ontarians have demonstrated their capacity for struggle, but their fight will only be made stronger by uniting with all layers of the workers and oppressed who are facing the brunt of Ford’s austerity.

Just as Franco-Ontarians ought not isolate themselves from the broader struggle against Ford, so too must the movement not ignore the plight of Franco-Ontarians. For too long, Anglo-chauvinism has been used to isolate a historically marginalized group, while quarantining the majority of the working class from their radical traditions and experiences. The fight for decent and accessible services is one that belongs to the entire working class. The time has come to unite the class and fight.