Proposed cuts to French-language services in Ontario by Doug Ford’s government have sparked outrage and resistance among the province’s francophones and francophiles. Thousands of them throughout the province protested the cuts recently. Farther east, a party that has been described as anti-francophone – the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick – has had electoral success. And this fall, Canada’s only officially bilingual province elected a unilingual anglophone premier.

It’s not hard to see why many francophones perceive the place of French in Canada to be regressing.

These events have united and galvanized francophone communities throughout the country. The perceived threats to French have even been a major news story in Quebec, with political commentators and politicians in the province focusing on Ontario’s relations with its francophone minority over the last month. Traditionally, the plight of francophones outside of Quebec has not received such attention. Quebec’s newest political star is Amanda Simard, the francophone MLA from Ontario who resigned from the Progressive Conservative caucus over its proposed cuts to French-language services.

Francophone media throughout the country have regularly used the term francophobia to explain the foundation of these threats to French-language rights. These moves against francophone rights have even been described as constituting a return to Orangeism.

While anti-francophone sentiment seems a reasonable assumption to explain the willingness to limit the rights of francophones, this is likely not the case.

I found relatively positive feelings exist between francophone Quebecers and anglophones in the rest of Canada when I explored the topic in a recent article using data from the 2015 Canadian Election Study.

The data here, in Figure 1, show the mean score of those feelings, measured on a scale of zero to 100, with zero being least positive and 100 being most positive. The feelings were at 80 or close to it.

Furthermore, looking back at a study by political scientist André Blais using data from the 1988 Canadian Election Study, it is clear that attitudes towards opposing linguistic groups have become much more positive. In 1988, francophones in Quebec and anglophones in the rest of Canada held only moderately positive feelings toward their linguistic counterparts, measured at an average of 61.

The warmth of intergroup attitudes between francophones and anglophones in Canada, based on the data from 2015, discounts the possibility that a popular anti-francophone sentiment among anglophones is fueling the threats to French-language services.

Yet, francophobia can also be understood as a more tacit, subtle phenomenon. For instance, Doug Ford equating Franco-Ontarians to the Chinese immigrant community is not an example of overt anti-francophone hatred. However, it does show a lack of knowledge, or care, for the history and rights of the francophone minority in Ontario. This is arguably a tacit form of anti-francophone prejudice. But are such attitudes prominent in non-francophones in Canada?

In a previous piece in Policy Options, I examined, also using data from the 2015 Canadian Election Study, the attitudes of Canadians towards bilingualism based on respondents’ mother tongue. Bilingualism is, as we have seen in recent weeks, of primordial importance for a linguistic minority and essentially represents the application of its linguistic rights.

Figure 2 shows the distribution of responses to a question on the degree of agreement with the statement “We have gone too far in pushing bilingualism in Canada.” We can clearly see a significant difference between francophones and non-francophones in their views on bilingualism in Canada.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of francophones disagree with the idea that bilingualism in Canada has been pushed too far (50 percent disagree and 34 percent strongly disagree). But 46 percent of anglophones agree with the statement that bilingualism has indeed gone too far in Canada (17 percent strongly agree and 29 percent agree). The attitudes of allophones and anglophones on bilingualism are comparable: 42 percent of allophones believe that bilingualism has gone too far, although in a less intense manner than anglophones (9 percent strongly agree and 33 percent agree).

While francophones evidently do not think that bilingualism has gone far enough in Canada, non-francophones are clearly less enthusiastic about further extending minority-language rights in Canada.

The good news for francophones is that these data do not indicate a generalized overt hatred amongst anglophones towards them. The bad news is that non-francophones are clearly unconvinced of the need to further promote bilingualism in Canada.

Francophones’ unified resistance to recent attempts to limit or claw back their rights can be seen as a positive development for them. But it can only be one part of the battle. Explaining to non-francophones why linguistic-minority rights need to be protected and even promoted need to also be part of a comprehensive action plan.

Yet, to truly be efficient in the defense of and promotion of bilingualism, there is a need for a better understanding of the factors that contribute to non-francophones’ lack of support for the further promotion of bilingualism in Canada. To do so, attitudes towards bilingualism need to be empirically investigated. Attitudinal data about bilingualism need to be comprehensive, consistent and publicly available.

In other words, bilingualism in Canada needs to become a topic that behavioural scholars actively study.

If francophobia is at play in the rise of the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick and the actions of the Ford government against Franco-Ontarians, it is most likely a tacit, subtle form of it rather than an overt anti-francophone sentiment. However, to develop appropriate responses to a phenomenon, it is essential to confidently identify it and thoroughly explain the factors driving it.

Without better data and further research, the struggle by linguistic minorities to protect and promote their rights will be all the more difficult.

Photo: MPP Amanda Simard, second row right, is seen seated amongst fellow MPP’s and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, as the legislature sits inside Queens Park in Toronto on Sept. 15, 2018. Simard has since left the PC caucus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

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Mike Medeiros est chercheur associé au Politics of Race and Ethnicity Lab de l'Université du Texas à Austin. Ses recherches portent sur les enjeux sociopolitiques liés à l'appartenance ethnique, au genre, aux élections et au nationalisme. Vous pouvez le suivre sur Twitter à @MikeMikeMed.

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