The Ontario government’s proposed cuts to French-language services have elicited significant political backlash, including from within Progressive Conservative ranks and from the anglophone community in Québec.
Others have expressed support for the government’s decision to abolish the office of the French-language services commissioner and rescind its campaign promise to open a French-language university in Toronto.
In justifying the cuts, Premier Doug Ford has drawn parallels between Franco-Ontarians and Anglo-Québecers. He argued: “We have 10 colleges and universities with 300 programs. Québec has three (anglophone universities).”
Of course, this comparison treats French-language program offerings in Ontario as equivalent to an entire post-secondary institution such as McGill University. By these standards, most universities in Québec qualify as English institutions because they offer English-language programs.
But can these parallels really be drawn between the two groups? Are Franco-Ontarians asking for too much relative to their anglophone counterparts in Québec? Do Anglo-Québecers receive the short end of the stick from their provincial government?
The answer is no on all three counts.
In the areas of socio-economic resources, service availability and cultural vitality, it is Franco-Ontarians who face an uphill battle for resources and recognition.
The first asymmetry for Franco-Ontarians concerns socio-economic resources. Despite their minority status, Anglo-Québecers historically occupied privileged positions as the province’s economic and social elite. In the process, they developed robust organizations to protect their cultural and linguistic rights.
Today, this socio-economic divide has all but disappeared, but an educational attainment gap remains. For example, the high school graduation rate in Québec stands at 84 per cent for anglophones compared with 73 per cent for francophones.
“Much remains to be done to improve the health and well-being of the Franco-Ontarian population and to bring its health and quality of life to a level comparable to that of the general population of Ontario.”
The second factor that differentiates official-language minority groups is the availability of public services in their respective languages.
Here, Anglo-Québecers appear to have the upper hand. As legal expert Richard Silver explains:
“The right of English-speaking people in Québec to receive health and social services in their language was first enshrined in legislation in 1986. However, English-speaking Québecers have received services in English for generations.”
In terms of medical services, almost all hospitals on the island of Montréal are bilingual, and 69 per cent of doctors in the city use English regularly at work. In the Québec City region, 76.3 per cent of doctors are able to speak English with patients. In largely rural eastern Québec, the figure is 78.8 per cent.
Conversely, there is only one French-language hospital in Ontario and it was nearly shut down in 1999. Roughly half of Franco-Ontarians say that gaining access to health services in their language was either very difficult or impossible. Seventy-four per cent of Franco-Ontarians say they rarely have access — or no access at all — to hospital emergency services in French.
Québec also features three storied universities that operate primarily in English: McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s. These are complemented by substantial English-language offerings at Québec’s 15 French-language universities.
For example, Université de Montréal offers 16 graduate-degree programs for students who do not speak French.
Ontario, of course, has no stand-alone French-language university. It does have the University of Ottawa, a bilingual institution. But when Ford refers to the more than 300 French-language programs offered in Ontario, he is including offerings geared to non-francophones who want to learn the language.
Finally, perhaps the most important asymmetry concerns each group’s linguistic and cultural vitality. Despite sensationalist stories about language police in Québec, English does not appear to be at risk of disappearing.
Conversely, francophones constitute a shrinking minority surrounded by 350 million anglophones in North America. Franco-Ontarians, in particular, have a relatively low intergenerational language retention rate. For example, only 19.6 per cent of children with a francophone father and non-francophone mother identify as French-speaking.
And as Sen. André Pratte explains: “Today, 40 per cent of Ontarians who have French as their mother tongue speak mostly English at home.”
Minority-language rights in Canada exist to promote the cultural survival of official-language minorities as well as the ability to speak and live in the official language of one’s choice. Imprudent cuts to minority-language services — in French or English — risk dismantling institutional resources and jeopardize cultural and linguistic vitality.
Doug Ford’s comparisons of Franco-Ontarians and Anglo-Québecers are flawed whether they stem from malice or from ignorance. The parallels he uses cannot be drawn to justify depriving an official-language minority of rights and services.
Such cuts would threaten the quality of life and constitutional rights of Anglo-Québecers. For Franco-Ontarians, they could also lead to assimilation.
An earlier version of this article was published in Policy Options