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 Quebec. 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, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has drawn parallels between Franco-Ontarians and Anglo-Quebecers. He argued: “We have 10 colleges and universities with 300 programs. Quebec has 3 (anglophone universities).”
Of course, this comparison treats French-language program offerings in Ontario as equivalent to an entire post-secondary institution such as Montreal’s McGill University. By these standards, most universities in Quebec qualify as English institutions, since 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 Quebec? Do Anglo-Quebecers 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-Quebecers historically occupied privileged positions as the province’s social and economic elite. Geographically concentrated in greater Montreal, they developed robust organizations to protect their cultural and linguistic rights, including Alliance Quebec and the Quebec Community Groups Network.
The relegation of francophones to menial and low-paying jobs fuelled Quebec nationalism and political developments even after the Quiet Revolution successfully addressed most of these inequalities. Today, this socio-economic divide has all but disappeared, with the exception of an educational attainment gap. In 2012, roughly 23 percent of anglophones over age 15 held at least a university bachelor’s degree versus 15 percent of francophones. A 2016 study also found an 11 percent discrepancy in high school graduation rates in Quebec’s public schools: 84 percent for anglophones compared with 73 percent for francophones.
In Ontario, francophones live disproportionately in the north and east of the province. They rate their health lower and report lower average incomes than the anglophone population. A 2009 report says: “Much remains to be done to improve the health and wellbeing 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-Quebecers appear to have the upper hand. As Richard Silver explains, “The right of English-speaking people in Quebec to receive health and social services in their language was first enshrined in legislation in 1986. However, English-speaking Quebecers have received services in English for generations.”
In terms of medical services, Ontario has one French-language hospital: It’s in Ottawa, 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 percent of Franco-Ontarians say they rarely have access – or no access at all – to hospital emergency services in French.
For Anglo-Quebecers, almost all hospitals on the island of Montreal are bilingual, and 69 percent of doctors in the city use English regularly at work. In the Quebec City region, 76.3 percent of doctors are able to speak English with patients. In largely rural Eastern Quebec, the figure is 78.8 percent.
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Quebec also features three storied universities that operate primarily in English: McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s. These are complemented by substantial English-language offerings at Quebec’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, which is a bilingual institution. But when Ford refers to the more than 300 French-language programs offered in Ontario, he is including French-language 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 the language police in Quebec, English does not appear to be at risk of disappearing in the province. The anglophone community in Quebec faces a different challenge: young people are leaving to pursue economic opportunities in other provinces.
Nonetheless, the anglophone population is rising. English is also disproportionately the primary workplace language in Quebec. Thirteen percent of Quebecers work primarily in English, a number that rises to 30 percent for the best-educated Quebecers, meaning those with doctoral or master’s degrees.
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 percent of children with a francophone father and non-francophone mother identify as French-speaking. And as André Pratte explains: “Today, 40 percent of Ontarians who have French as their mother tongue speak mostly English at home. In Manitoba: 55 percent.”
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-Quebecers 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-Quebecers. For Franco-Ontarians, they could also lead to assimilation.
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