A federal Liberal cabinet minister is blasting the Ontario government’s decision to eliminate spending on francophone initiatives from the province’s budget.
In a letter that was sent Friday and obtained by the Star, Official Languages Minister Mélanie Joly expressed what she described as her “sincere disappointment” at the provincial Progressive Conservatives’ move to eliminate the office of the French language services commissioner and to scrap plans for a French-language university.
Premier Doug Ford’s government revealed the cuts Thursday in its fall economic update. The Tories said they were necessary in order to reduce costs and address what the party says is a $15-billion deficit left behind by the previous Liberal government.
“These are devastating decisions that will have a lasting impact on the more than 600,000 Franco-Ontarians and the more than 7.9 million francophones across Canada,” Joly wrote in the letter addressed to Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s minister responsible for francophone affairs.
Joly said the promotion of the French language is “central to our common approach of supporting our two official languages and defending the rights of minorities in Canada,” and warned that eliminating the commissioner’s position and abandoning plans for the university “will have severe consequences on the vitality of the Franco-Ontario community and the Canadian Francophonie.”
Joly requested a meeting with Mulroney “as soon as possible” to discuss the issue.
The previous Ontario Liberal government created the office of the French language commissioner in 2007. Its mandate is to ensure the rights of citizens and obligations of the government are respected according to the French Language Services Act. François Boileau has held the position since its inception. In the fiscal year of 2017-18, his office fielded 315 complaints or requests for information.
The Tories didn’t immediately say how much the province will save by closing the office, but in prior years its annual budget was about $1.2 million.
In 2017, a planning board also convened under the Ontario Liberals recommended the creation of a new French-language university in Toronto, at an estimated initial cost of $83.5 million that would be split equally between the provincial and federal governments.
In the run-up to the Ontario election in June, Ford’s PC party committed to following through with establishing the school.
The Tories argue that the elimination of the French language commissioner won’t result in a reduction of services because the position’s duties will be rolled into the office of the provincial ombudsman.
“The work that the commission did will continue; linguistic rights will be protected. Ontarians will continue to have an independent government office to come to make complaints if they have any,” Mulroney told Radio-Canada in an interview conducted in French on Friday.
“There will be an independent agent — the ombudsman — who is like the commissioner currently, who will study these complaints and produce reports if they wish.”
In a Facebook post, Mulroney’s parliamentary assistant Amanda Simard, the MPP for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, acknowledged Franco-Ontarians were “concerned” about the loss of the commissioner. But she stressed that the office’s functions will “remain independent under the governance of the ombudsman.”
The Progressive Conservatives’ decision to cut spending on francophone initiatives made few headlines in the mainstream Ontario press this week, but drew sharp criticism in Quebec, where the move was seen by many as an attack on minority language rights.
Quebec Premier François Legault has pledged to raise the issue with Ford when the pair meet at Queen’s Park on Monday.
With more than 622,000 francophones in the province, Ontario is home to the largest such population in Canada outside of Quebec. Francophones make up roughly 4.7 per cent of the province’s population, according to the commissioner’s office.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter. Reach him by email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr