I remember it like it was yesterday. It was December 2018. I was president of Université de Moncton’s student union, la Fédération des étudiantes et des étudiantes de la communauté universitaire de Moncton (FÉÉCUM). More than 300 people came out despite the cold to show solidarity with our Franco-Ontarian friends in New Brunswick and protest what was to become known as Ontario’s “Black Thursday.”
The Ontario government, led by Conservative Premier Doug Ford, had just announced the abolition of the Office of the Commissioner of French Language Services and the cancellation of a project to create a French-language university in Downtown Toronto. The shock was terrible, and the entire Franco-Ontarian community was appalled. Throughout Ontario, more than 14,000 Francophones and Francophiles took to the street in protest of the proposed cuts.
By marching through the streets of Moncton, we wanted to show that, despite our provincial borders and the distance that separates us, we were united because we were fighting for the same cause: the respect for our French language and the recognition of our collective rights.
Three years later, the same government led by Ford participated in the official opening of the Université de l’Ontario français (UOF) in Toronto and completed one of the most important modernizations of the French Language Services Act (FLSA) that Ontario has seen in a long time. Needless to say, this represented quite the turnaround!
To achieve these astounding results in just 36 months, we have to highlight the incredible work of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO), the SANB’s sister organisation in Ontario chaired by Carol Jolin, as well as that of the Minister of Transportation and Francophone Affairs, Caroline Mulroney. Popular mobilization, political pressure, federal intervention, and the courage of Ontario’s Francophones all helped Ford better understand the aspirations of the province’s francophone population. What a difference three years can make!
Meanwhile, in New Brunswick, the country’s only officially bilingual province, we are in the midst of a review of the province’s Official Languages Act (OLA). The two commissioners appointed by Premier Blaine Higgs recently published their initial report, and its recommendations have been widely praised by members of the province’s Acadian and Francophone community. Although we are in the middle of a pandemic, and although the province is led by a Premier who is not interested in acting as Minister of the OLA (despite the fact that the Act requires him to do so), the Francophone community expects that this quasi-constitutional law, which is fundamental to the social cohesion of our province, will not only be strengthened, but also respected by the Minister responsible for its application.
With less a week to go before the holiday season, I am still hoping for a Christmas miracle: that our Premier will find his respect for the third of the province who has French as their first language. If Premier Higgs needs to find and inspiring example within our country, he need only look to his Conservative counterpart in Ontario. Who knows, maybe the Christmas spirits of Charles Dickens’ classic tale will visit him and open his eyes to the great things we can accomplish as a province if we finally decide to work together.
Alexandre Cédric Doucet is the President of the Société de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick (SANB).