Manitoba francophones protest Ontario French-language service cuts

French-speaking Manitobans added their voices to others across the country protesting against government cuts to French language services Saturday.

Rally in Winnipeg part of Canada-wide day of protest

An estimated 200 people attended a rally at old city hall in St. Boniface Saturday to protest the Ontario government's decision to downgrade the province's independent watchdog on French-language services and to scrap plans for a French-language university in the Greater Toronto Area. (CBC)

French-speaking Manitobans added their voices to others across the country protesting against government cuts to French language services Saturday.

The Winnipeg rally was one of several held across Canada sparked by Ontario Premier Doug Ford's move to downgrade the province's independent watchdog on French-language services and scrap plans for a French-language university in the Greater Toronto Area.

"It's from coast-to-coast-to-coast that these rallies have been happening and it's poignant, it's significant and I think it's somewhat of an awakening across the country," said Christian Monnin, president of the Société franco-manitobaine, which helped organize Winnipeg's demonstration.

"As a minority community you have to maintain your vigilance because you never know what's coming around the corner, and your acquired rights are never really fully acquired.

"You have to step up and fight for them."

The demonstrators met at Université de Saint-Boniface and walked to a rally in front of St. Boniface's old city hall on Provencher Boulevard. (CBC)

While cuts come to French services in Ontario, Monnin says Manitoba is planning to reduce French translation services within government and is currently looking at making changes to the Bureau de l'éducation française (BEF), which runs French-language education in Manitoba.

The changes to the BEF, which haven't been finalized, come after Manitoba reassigned its administrator of French-language education last year, leaving parents and educators worried more cuts would come for francophone and French immersion schools in Manitoba. 

"They're making some changes and we don't know what those changes are," said Monnin.

"Our community has fought hard to have autonomy for its education system — we had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada in order to get that right — it's a foundational aspect to ensure that the community remains vital."

A matter of economics?

Ontario's plan to eliminate the position of the French Language Services Commissioner and scrap plans to build a French language university have enraged francophones living in the province, but the Ford government says the moves are needed to help balance the budget.

The economic argument doesn't sway Monnin.

He says the BEF, which develops curriculum for immersion and French schools, provides educational support services, supplies French-language resources to public libraries and does professional development with educators, plays too important of a role in Manitoba to gut.

"We're waiting to see... what the planned restructuring is going to look like and what impacts that will have on the education system in Manitoba for the francophone community and for the French immersion community," he said.

"But when it comes to language rights you can't have an economic argument."

Monnin estimated as many as 200 people attended Saturday's rally, which gathered at the Université de Saint-Boniface before moving to St. Boniface's old city hall on Provencher Boulevard.

Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne vice-president Justin Johnson says the nation-wide demonstrations bring attention to the importance of bilingualism. (CBC)

Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne vice-president Justin Johnson was among those who took part in the Winnipeg rally.

He said the nationwide demonstrations bring attention to the importance of protecting language rights and bilingualism.

"We need to ensure that elected officials and Canadians in general understand that this is having an effect on our social contract and it's not respecting the tenet of linguistic duality," he said.

"By sharing this with our anglophone cousins and fellow Canadians, we're showing that we're all part of this same thing and… the added value of bilingualism in Canada brings good things."