Ontario is not an officially bilingual province, yet more than 611,000 Ontarians — nearly 5 per cent of the population — speak French at home. In 25 areas of the province containing a significant number of francophones, residents are entitled to have access to provincial services in French. (About 80 per cent of Franco-Ontarians live in these areas; a 26th region, Markham, will be added in 2018.)
In 2007, François Boileau became Ontario’s first French-language services commissioner. This summer, he marks his 10th anniversary on the job.
Boileau believes Ontario’s francophone heritage — dating back four centuries — is worth preserving. And, he argues, French will be a more important part of the province’s future than many anglophones realize. Last month, he spoke with TVO.org about his role.
Likely many Ontarians don’t even know we have a French-language services commissioner. What does the job entail?
My role is to uphold the French Language Services Act. It’s been 31 years now that we’ve had the Act, which enables Franco-Ontarians to receive services from the provincial government.
We often think of Franco-Ontarians as people who can speak English, too. So what’s the point? At some point down the road, when you’re using English all the time [in public], then it becomes a question of, “Well, it’s easier in English — so why not just switch to English?” And then you lose the habit of speaking French. And then you lose the confidence of speaking French. And then you lose the will to speak French. And then that’s it: you’ve become assimilated.
How accurate is the perception that most Franco-Ontarians can speak perfectly good English?
It’s actually not that true. Take me for example: I’m fluent in English. But I’m with a journalist right now, so I’m a bit more nervous, searching a bit more for my words. I’m not completely myself right now. But it’s not an intense situation. I’m not in court. I’m not asking for services for my daughter’s health. That would stress me more. So it’s not just about speaking French casually — it’s about receiving services when you need them the most.
When we’re talking about children, obviously, they’re not completely bilingual. When we’re talking about new immigrants, they’re not completely bilingual either. When we’re talking about ourselves in vulnerable situations, we’re not completely bilingual.
You argue the government’s new Patients First Act fails to address inadequate access to medical care in French. What needs to change there?
I could be in the news every two weeks with complaints that I’ve received regarding the lack of medical services in French.
Before the creation of the local health integration networks (LHINs), before 2006, the Ministry of Health was directly responsible for providing services through service providers [such as hospitals]. So it was easy to assume that [we could] work with the ministry if there was an issue [regarding services in French].
But that responsibility has been transferred to the LHINs. And the LHINs are saying, “Well, because we don’t offer direct services to the population, the service providers that come to us are not obligated to follow through on the obligations of the French Language Services Act.” It doesn’t make any sense on a legal basis. And it’s killing the intent of the Act. And it’s not right. And for the past four years, I’ve been in discussions with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, and they were saying, “We would need to change the Act, so it’s complicated.” And then when they did change the Act — it was a perfect opportunity to clarify the obligation of the LHINs [when it comes to French] — they didn’t do it. So I’m not happy about this one, and I will show my teeth as a watchdog.
Let’s talk about immigration. Last fall, a group of experts released a report, commissioned by the province, on how to ensure that 5 per cent of immigrants admitted to Ontario are francophone. What makes this goal so important?
The last census showed that [Franco-Ontarians] stayed at 4.8 per cent of the population. But if we are to welcome more and more immigrants, then at one point we will become lower and lower in terms of percentage.
We think the province’s francophone communities have a direct role to play in Ontario’s diversity and richness in the future, given that French is one of the fastest-growing languages in the world. French is on the rise — especially in Africa, a continent from which we are attracting more and more people.
Only 2.2 per cent of immigrants to Ontario were francophone in 2014. How can that number be increased?
We need a strategy to attract, recruit, retain, and train those folks. What we’re seeking is a real strategy, an inter-governmental and inter-ministerial strategy, not one that’s just inside the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. We need to make sure the ministries of education municipal affairs, labour, and social services are invited as well.
You’re also concerned about access to French-language education, particularly in the GTA. Why is there such demand for French-language schools a traditionally anglophone area?
The GTA is the fastest-growing place for francophones to be. In London, Hamilton, and especially Toronto it’s an increasingly huge hub for francophones, especially with immigration. More than 200,000 francophones live in the GTA.
So what needs to be done?
Well, more schools. And to change the Regulation 444-98, created for school boards that want to abandon underused schools. It was not created in a situation where you need to acquire new schools, which is the case for French school boards in the GTA, both Catholic and public. They’re craving new schools because they are cracking at the seams in the schools they have. My five-year-old daughter would go on the bus for almost an hour every morning and night because the French school nearby was too full.
[According to a July 2016 report by Boileau, the regulation “allows the board to subdivide a piece of land before putting it up for sale …This practice gives the boards an opportunity to make a larger profit from the sale, but it also makes it impossible for other school boards to purchase the properties, because their size makes them useless for educational purposes.”]
There’s a push to create a French-language university in Ontario. The University of Ottawa is bilingual, and there are many French-language universities nearby in Quebec. With francophones representing just 5 per cent of Ontario’s population, what need is there for a French-language university in this province?
It’s not about the percentage; it’s about the numbers. If you take St. Boniface University, in Manitoba, it’s not about percentage; it’s about numbers. The same goes for Sainte-Anne University, in Nova Scotia. We have more than 600,000 [francophones in Ontario]. So the reality is, we do have a market for a francophone university.
And not only for francophones, but for Francophiles as well — to attract those people who want to pursue post-secondary education in French and be more competitive in the world of today and tomorrow.
In Ontario, with French it has always been small steps. And this is one of them. But it could be a giant leap if we let it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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