The French connection: Commissioner François Boileau on Ontario’s Francophone minorities
François Boileau is a theatrical guy, prone to impressions of those he talks about with sweeping hand gestures and a bellowing laugh. He sat down to his interview wearing a Franco-Ontarian flag pin on his lapel. Of Ontario’s fourteen million residents, nearly 600,000 speak French at home—a fact often forgotten by Canadians, Quebecois included. As Commissioner of Ontario for the Office of French Language Services (OFLS), it was Boileau’s role to represent these Francophones’ interests, to mitigate their obstacles, to protect their culture, and to amplify their visibility. By April 1, he’ll be out of the job, now that Ontario’s government has cut his office from the provincial budget, acting against a 2014 federal report on the status of French as a minority language.
It’s not only that. 1969’s Official Languages Act was meant to ensure citizens’ equal access to federal services, but Boileau pointed out that continued obstruction of services in French has caused inequality and backlogs in areas of health, immigration, economics, youth issues, the elderly, education, children’s aid societies, adoption, and the criminal justice sector. Boileau explained that OFLS strove to enact “different programs that would be targeted to the needs of the Francophone population to make sure that [they] actually [do] something.” With continued obstruction, and without an office representing their interests, Francophones outside Quebec face less opportunity for advancement than their Anglo peers.
Invisibility has also plagued the Francophone population and, according to Boileau, has insinuated to the Ford government and Andrew Scheer (who Boileau believes gave the green light) that they were not a minority in need of support. A palatable disconnect remains between those who grew up in French and English speaking households, which can largely be attributed to three areas:
The ineptitude of French programs has left Anglo identification with French minorities unlikely. As Boileau stated, “if you have Anglophones that speak French, then one would think there would be more sympathy to your cause.” Without experiencing the same culture, their poor experiences with French education leave potential Anglo allies frustrated.
Further, in urban areas with a mixed population where cross-identification might seem more likely, real territorial distances seperate the two populations, as is the case in Moncton, Montreal, and Ottawa, leaving contact across the aisle improbable.
Boileau points out how the invisibility of Franco-Ontarians is often promulgated by the their language ability, leading Anglos to react in shock upon discovery that their friend’s mother tongue is –mon dieu– French.
Yet as of April 1, Boileau will not be allotted his position in government. Without understanding its necessity, the administration believed it to be a drain on public resources, Boileau only estimating savings at $300,000 per year by the cut. It was coupled with the refusal to fund a previously promised French university, denying opportunity to French speakers.
“I don’t think that [Doug Ford’s motives are] anti-French,” Boileau said. “I believe that he’s doing this because [...] he doesn’t understand the history of the Franco-Ontarian community nor its plight [...] I believe [the cut] is a calculation that is motivated by fiscal reality and not by ideology.”
Because of their distance, Ontarian residents, myself included, end up forgetting about the Francophone population, but if the origin of their problem is visibility, it shouldn’t be for long. La Résistance is a coalition of Franco-Ontarians quickly formed in response to administrative pressure. Boileau explained how their visibility tactics led to coverage not limited to the French press.
“We saw clearly the reaction when the Montreal Gazette issued an editorial blaming the Ford government for the cuts,” Boileau said. “It had a clear effect at the Canadian level. Then, if it was not for the Montreal Gazette, I am not sure if we would have seen the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen taking a position [...] It’s important to have this support, but it’s actually fundamental that we see we’re not alone.”
The province maintains that the office will be replaced by an ombudsman, but Boileau is insistent that this decision is insufficient.
“We were providing key recommendations and counsels on issues dealing with policy,” Boileau said. “With the ombudsman, that’s not part of his job. He receives complaints and he will act on complaints. If I’d waited for complaints regarding post-secondary education in central southwestern Ontario there wouldn’t be any report.”
A policy responding to minority necessities requires what Boileau calls “Active Offering” in which organisations and their staff don’t just respond to requests for French service but actively make it available. At last year’s Official Language Committee, Boileau reminded his audience of the unlikelihood that “a teenager, overwhelmed by addiction, having just given birth and with the Children's Aid Society knocking at her door, [would] then ask to get a psychosocial assessment in French.” An ombudsman cannot devise policy to address these inadequacies. A commission might.
Boileau has managed various projects throughout his tenure, but he remains somber. After accomplishing all he had set out to do, he now sees what he has built teetering dangerously close to collapse.
“And that’s the sadness of the whole thing,” Boileau said. “My entire focus as commissioner was to make sure that my successor would have an easier job. That he or she would say ‘This guy, Beliddle or Bellow or whatever his name was, why was he complaining so much about a lack of resources? It’s such an easy job’ [...] And so I would have hoped that my successor would have fun doing this. She or he could have brought the organization closer to the Anglophone majority population, something I have not really succeeded in […] I would have made sure of that.”
As of April 1, “that” won’t be possible.
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