Premier Kathleen Wynne issued a formal apology Monday to the Franco-Ontarian community for a rule that virtually banned the use of French in the province's elementary schools early last century.

Regulation 17  — passed by the Conservative government of James Whitney in 1912 — severely restricted the use of French by teachers in both Catholic and public schools across Ontario. 

"Regulation 17 showed a disregard for Franco-Ontarian identity and equality, and on behalf of the government of Ontario I offer an apology," Wynne told the legislature Monday afternoon.

Teachers were only allowed to use French if absolutely necessary to communicate with a child who spoke no English, and could only do so in the child's first year of school. It forced many Francophone teachers to resort to stealth, hiding French textbooks when school inspectors would visit the classroom. The policy remained on the books until 1927.

"The government enforced regulation 17 for more than a decade before finally conceding that the policy was a failure, but it stayed on the books much longer," said Wynne. "The francophone community feared that Franco-Ontarian children were losing their language."

The government of the day stated it wanted to raise the quality of English-language education in primary schools, so it prohibited teachers from communicating with students in French beyond Grade 2.

Many schools and teachers refused to obey the regulation, so the government brought in another to take away school funding and teachers' certifications if they continued to allow French to be spoken.

"The tremendous courage and tenacity of Franco-Ontarians has not gone unnoticed," said Wynne. "In just a few generations, Ontario has gone from a place that was at times resistant to diversity to a place that fully embraces
different cultures and languages."

'Concrete gestures'

The premier dismissed the idea of compensation or reparations, and said the province was already making "concrete gestures" by providing French services and schools, and noted there is a debate about creating a French university.

"What's important right now is to acknowledge that there was a regulation in place that was not fair, that did not recognize the importance of the francophone community in Ontario," said Wynne.

"I think the changes that have been made over the last decades are very, very important in terms of recognizing the Francophonie in Ontario."

Sudbury Liberal backbencher Glenn Thibeault, who asked for the official apology, said it demonstrated that the government recognizes its past error.

"It's more than the apology itself," he said. "It's the opportunity to turn that page and say that the francophone community is now one that's rooted in our province."

'A black mark in Ontario's history'

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown called Regulation 17 "a black mark in Ontario's history" and said he supported Wynne's decision to apologize.

"It was wrong when it happened, and even though the apology is coming late, I'm glad that we're making it," he said.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath welcomed the apology to Ontario's French-speaking community and urged the government to keep increasing the services it provides in French.

"The lasting impacts of this assimilation policy created barriers to education for francophone Ontarians for many decades," said Horwath.

"Francophone children do not always have access to French schools, and we still don't have a French university governed by and for francophone Ontarians."

Ontario is home to about 612,000 francophones, the largest French-speaking population in Canada outside of Quebec.

With files from Canadian Press