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by Suzanne Gammon
Many West Nipissing residents joined protestors from across the Nipissing region on Dec. 1 to loudly express their opposition to French language services cuts by the Ford government. They were approximately 700 strong, waving Franco-Ontarian flags and signs, chanting and yelling and singing in front of Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli’s office.
Their concerns were mainly for the abolition of the French Language Services Commissioner as an independent office, and cancellation of the planned French language university, which was set to open in Toronto in 2020. Ontario Premier Doug Ford cited budgetary constraints as reasons for the cuts, but Franco-Ontarians were not having it, protesting loudly at what they dubbed “black Thursday” when the announcement was made Nov. 15. Ford then said he was integrating the Commissioner within the Ombudsman’s office - a plan Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé disapproves and critics say will save no money - and clarified that the university was not cancelled but simply put on the backburner until finances improved. Meanwhile, one Conservative MP broke ranks and denounced the cuts, eventually even leaving the party and now sitting as an Independent, and a wave of opposition quickly gained steam across the province and even in other provinces, notably Quebec.
The movement spawned protests in many Ontario cities and towns, bringing out an estimated 15,000 people on Saturday. In Nipissing, buses from Sturgeon Falls and Mattawa brought people to Main Street in North Bay where they gathered in front of Fedeli’s office, lining both sides of the street for two hours in the damp cold and occasional rain. The Sturgeon Falls bus had only 12 people on it, however most local participants made the trip in their own vehicles. Among them were members of the Sturgeon Falls Club Richelieu, who displayed their banner, and many families protesting together, some with three generations present. One person not present, however, was Vic Fedeli, who was in New York during the protest.
Anita Corriveau, member of the organizing group called Résistance Nipissing, said she met with Fedeli the previous day, Friday, Nov. 30, at his office. She and another member were given 15 minutes to speak on the issues, and then were rushed out by the secretary. “He kept repeating money, money, money,” said Corriveau, adding he was not very receptive. “We told him the federal government would fund 50% of the university, and he asked if we would be willing to help with the application. I said yes, on two conditions, that there is no compromise on the independent Commissioner and the university.” She pointed out that the province of Québec spends $626 million per year on three English language universities, while the French language university in Ontario is projected to cost about $10 million annually, with the federal government picking up half the cost. “It’s insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and the benefits will far outweigh the cost,” she insisted.
So far, she says there has been no reaction from Fedeli after the protest. A call to his secretary this week revealed she was “swamped with phone calls” after organizers urged protesters to keep calling their MPP and Premier Ford’s offices to make their opinion known ahead of the vote, this Thursday, on the cuts. Fedeli himself has not reached out. “I find it very disappointing,” says Corriveau. “They don’t care. They are ignorant about the Francophone community. We are not a minority, we are a founding nation.” She also reminded that Ford and his appointed Minister for Francophone Affairs, Caroline Mulroney, had declared their support for the university during the election campaign.
On Wednesday, in a surprise move, the Ford government resolved that the Legislature would close after Thursday’s session, and return only on Feb. 19, 2019. Timiskaming-Cochrane MPP John Vanthof, whose NDP caucus has denounced the cuts and stood in support of the university, is disgusted by the move. “They will force it through and then head for the hills,” he charges. “They don’t want to face the public.” He adds that there are a number of decisions that “are not going over well”, including the choice of the new OPP Commissioner, closing the Child Advocate Office, an unpopular environmental plan and the “attack on Francophones,” and “rather than face question period, they just want to get out.”
Vanthof himself stayed at his constituency office in Temiskaming Shores on Dec. 1 to speak to the 250 people protesting there. He said he felt he owed it to them to answer their concerns, otherwise he would have joined the Nipissing protestors in North Bay. “It’s not even about money,” he deplores. “Closing the Commissioner’s office is not going to save a dime, and it’s a huge kick in the face to Franco-Ontarians.” As for the university, he says it “would have served as a centre of excellence for Francophone learning. (…) The economic argument doesn’t fly. It’s a weak argument when you consider the benefits versus the cost.”
He says the Conservatives “totally misread” the Francophone population, seeing them only as a statistic and not as a founding nation that is used to fighting for its rights. He notes the strong, organized reaction took the government by surprise, and “it’s the first time we’ve seen Ford even waiver.” He urges Franco-Ontarians to keep the pressure on. “Keep pushing. The Francophone community is making a difference. (…) At every opportunity, keep the heat on your MPP, even me!”
He even says “there are Conservative members who are unhappy,” though he does not expect to see any more break rank on this issue unless they face major backlash.
Corriveau says the “Résistance” plans to keep up that pressure. “Keep calling your MPP, Minister of Finance Vic Fedeli (705-474-8340) and Mr. Ford (1-416-325-3434); keep speaking out and writing letters. Doug Ford is doing this on the last day of Legislature because he doesn’t want to hear us. We have to make sure he hears us.”
She adds that 71 lawyers have joined the cause and they are willing to take the battle all the way to court, relying on the precedent set in the landmark Montfort case, when the Ontario Court of Appeal denied the province the right to reduce services at the only Francophone teaching hospital in Ontario, based on its constitutional obligation to protect Franco-Ontarian identity and culture.
“As a founding nation, we want to be respected, not tolerated. I understand the need for fiscal responsibility, but we have been fiscally responsible for 400 years, always taking a back seat while paying our fair share of taxes. Not so long ago, we had to fight for our own schools, and it was the same arguments, no money, existing bilingual schools, but today no one would argue that we have no right to have our own schools. Then it was our French language college, and today that college leads the province in student satisfaction and graduate employment. The economic advantages are huge. It is the same for our university, it will be an asset to Ontario; it will create jobs, attract international students and bring economic opportunities,” argues Corriveau.
She adds that many Anglophones understand and support the cause. “Many Anglophones have been calling to join us, and I tell them absolutely, yes! This is our Ontario, let’s make it better together!”
One such supporter is Don Wright of Sturgeon Falls, who greeted protestors as they were about to board the bus in Sturgeon Falls, and gave them a sign to bring to North Bay. It featured his original artwork, with pine trees representing Northern Ontario. It says “Je suis Anglais” (I am English), with a heart underneath in which he writes “I love you”. The image is framed by two hands reaching for each other, and between them the word “solidarité.” The relatively new resident of West Nipissing says he adores his new community and its residents, most of whom are Francophone, and he is learning French to enjoy even more of its rich culture. “I just wanted to come here and say I support you,” he told protestor Marcel Lafrenière, who was happy to take the sign to North Bay.
“It’s beautiful, and the message is beautiful. Thank you,” answered Lafrenière, obviously moved by the gesture.
This small group was among the many protestors from West Nipissing who made the trek to North Bay on Dec. 1, to oppose cuts to French language services in Ontario.