Make no mistake. By putting Ontario’s francophone minority on his fiscal hit list this week, Premier Doug Ford has placed his federal ally Andrew Scheer in harm’s way.
In Thursday’s fiscal update, Ontario’s Tory government put plans for a long-promised French-language university on the chopping block, in the process reversing Ford’s campaign commitment to the Franco-Ontarian community.
The post of French-language services commissioner — an independent office that oversees the delivery of government services to the Franco-Ontarian minority — is also to be abolished.
That comes on the heels of the premier’s decision to dispense with a minister responsible for francophone affairs at the time on his cabinet’s swearing-in. Instead, Ford delegated that responsibility to Attorney General Caroline Mulroney.
In the wake of the announcement on Thursday, her office said she was too busy to make herself available for media interviews. But, as Harry Potter fans know, one can only hide under a cloak of invisibility for so long. On Friday she belatedly defended the decision in a brief Radio-Canada interview.
As Mulroney’s agenda clears up, she will find many more media requests awaiting an answer, with every major outlet in Quebec lining up to interview her. Those interviews will not make for a pleasant day at the office. One loses count of the times she repeated her government’s commitment to the francophone university.
As she probably knows, the odds that this story will be a one-day wonder are just about non-existent.
To save what amounts to a small drop in Ontario’s fiscal bucket, the Ford government has managed to trigger waves of indignation within every minority-language community in the country — including Anglo-Quebeckers.
On its front page Friday, Ottawa’s Le Droit called the day of the fiscal update “A Black Day for Francos.” That headline was not an outlier.
The issue of the language rights for Canada’s French-language minorities has always been a third rail of Quebec-Canada politics.
For most Quebecers, the treatment afforded by provincial governments to their francophone minorities amount to a litmus test of Canada’s commitment to the concept of linguistic duality.
They have traditionally been particularly sensitive to the treatment of Franco-Ontarians and Acadians — Canada’s two largest French-language minority communities, and those that live closest to Quebec.
On that score, it has not gone unnoticed that the new minority Tory government in New Brunswick is dependent for its survival on the support of a party that advocates a reduction in French-language services.
For many, the latest Ontario developments have an air of déjà vu. Two decades ago, another Ontario Tory government tried and eventually failed to close Montfort, the province’s only French-language university hospital.
Now as then, the Franco-Ontarian community — as it rounds up the wagons for yet another battle — can count on the vocal support of Quebec’s political class, and that starts at the top.
On Thursday, Premier François Legault said he would raise the cancellation of Ontario’s planned francophone university and the elimination of the French-language services commissioner with Ford when the two meet for the first time on Monday. The issue is bound to cast a shadow on their relationship.
Which brings us to Scheer. The federal Conservative leader now faces two equally unpalatable choices and each stands to have defining consequences for his election prospects.
He can stick with his Ontario ally and try to take cover under the rationale that it is not his place to question provincial choices. Under that scenario, one can only wish his Quebec MPs good luck, for that excuse will not wash easily. Nor will it pass muster in the ridings outside Quebec where francophone voters are numerous enough to determine the outcome.
Alternatively, Scheer can put a first dent in his friendship with Ford by suggesting he reconsiders the cuts to French-language services. In similar circumstances, Brian Mulroney did just that.
Indeed, Mulroney might never have secured enough Quebec support to become prime minister in 1984 had he not stood up to Manitoba’s then-Tory government over its treatment of its francophone community.
But there is a larger issue than language rights in play in the dilemma Ford has — unwittingly or not — forced on Scheer.
The latter has basked in the political friendship of both Ford and Jason Kenney. As he looks to next fall’s election, Scheer has ensured that no light shines between his federal party and those headed by his popular provincial cousins.
There is no doubt that the Alberta Tory leader and the Ontario premier have a massive amount of influence on the rookie federal leader. But at what point does that influence cross into puppet-master territory?
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert