'Proud of my culture': Thousands protest French-language service cuts

Thousands of people waved protest signs outside Ottawa City Hall Saturday afternoon to protest the Ontario government's cuts to French-language services.

Ottawa rally one of 40 held across the province

A woman holds up a protest sign adorned with the Franco-Ontarian flag at a rally over French language service cuts in Ottawa on Dec. 1, 2018. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Thousands of people waved protest signs outside Ottawa City Hall Saturday in a massive protest over the Ontario government's cuts to French-language services.

The protest was one of many that took place in nearly 40 communities across the province, including the eastern Ontario communities of Hawkesbury, Prescott and Cornwall.

Protesters are criticizing the government's decision to alter the position of French language services commissioner and to cancel a project to build a long-awaited French-language university in the Toronto area.

Politicians from all three levels of government attended the Ottawa rally to show solidarity, including Mélanie Joly, the federal minister for official languages and La Francophonie, and Pierre Arcand, the interim leader of Quebec's Liberal party.

Federal Minister Mélanie Joly greeted people in the crowd of thousands that showed up at Ottawa City Hall on Dec. 1, 2018, to protest proposed cuts to French services. (Radio-Canada)

Cutbacks like opening 'Pandora's box' 

"We're really saying 'no' to what's going on at Queen's Park right now. This is clearly an unacceptable decision," said Joly.

Joly touted her government's launch of a new court challenge program that could help minority language groups defend their rights and an increase in funding to minority language groups across the country.

She also said that should the Ford government change its mind about cancelling the university project, the federal government would support it up to 50 per cent. 

Thousands of people crammed into the grounds near Ottawa City Hall on Dec. 1, 2018, to protest cuts to French-language services in Ontario. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

In Hawkesbury, former Progressive Conservative MPP Amanda Simard took part in a rally held on the doorstep of her constituency office.

The MPP for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell heavily criticized the Ford government's cuts before leaving the party to sit as an independent earlier this week.

"I was the parliamentary assistant, but I did not have a voice," she said, referring to her former role as parliamentary assistant to the Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs — a position Ford scrapped and then reinstated after a backlash. 

"I think now I will be able to speak more freely." 

About 40 rallies were held in communities across the province — including this rally in Hawkesbury, Ont., in the riding of former PC MPP Amanda Simard. (Yasmine Mehdi/Radio-Canada)

Marie-France Lalonde the Liberal MPP for Orléans and Ontario's former minister for francophone affairs, said the rallies across the province show Franco-Ontarians have a strong presence. 

"We'll see what it means when you open … Pandora's box for Franco-Ontarian and francophones and francophiles. Language rights is something part of our constitution," she said.

"What Mr. Ford is saying is that we're not important."

'We have to fight together'

The federal NDP's critic for official languages, François Choquette, attended the rally in Ottawa as well, as did Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden.

A number of Coalition Avenir Québec politicians from western Quebec were also at the rally, including Chapleau MNA Mathieu Lévesque and Papineau MNA Mathieu Lacombe, the province's minister for both families and the Outaouais.

Quebec residents like Nathalie Battika also showed up.

"We have to fight together because … If something happens in one of the provinces it's going to affect Quebec," Battika said.

Carol Jolin, president of the Francophone Assembly of Ontario, said two institutions of the Franco-Ontarian community have been "directly attacked" by the Doug Ford government.

"You don't touch our institutions. That's the essence of our culture, of what we are as francophones in Ontario," said Jolin. 

President of the Francophone Assembly of Ontario Carol Jolin says people had the chance to tell the government loud and clear why French services are important at the protests Dec. 1, 2018. (Radio-Canada)

Fighting for future rights 

Jolin said it's also important to have an independent French language services commissioner that's not attached to the ombudsman's office.

He said the commissioner doesn't just receive complaints, but makes sure ministries know their responsibilities when it comes to French services and informs residents of their rights. 

"We have to put together a 'francophone community 101' for Mr. Ford, I believe, because I'm not sure he understands [who] we are, how we feel and basically our rights," said Jolin. 

Lauren Touchant was one of the roughly 5,000 people, according to organizers, who attended the Ottawa rally. She said it was a privilege to be able to study in French for her doctorate. 

"To learn in your own language is critical," Touchant said.

François Latour wrapped himself in the Franco-Ontarian flag at a rally in Ottawa on Dec. 1, 2018. He's worried cutbacks to French services will mean future generations won't speak the language. (Radio-Canada)

François Latour came from St. Albert, Ont., roughly 60 kilometres east of Ottawa, to attend the rally.

"It's for my kids, my grandkids," Latour said.

"[Otherwise] they're going to lose their French and it's going to be all English."

Invisible minority

Orléans high school French teacher Marie-Pier Charlebois said she sees "every day" how her students are influenced by anglophone culture.

"I just want to be here to be proud of my culture, my language and to show them that it's important and that we need to fight for it," Charlebois said.

Nadine Malo-Lemire says three generations of her family attended Saturday's rally at Ottawa City Hall. 0:37

Another French-language teacher, Nadine Malo-Lemire, said her community often feels like it's an invisible minority, since many are bilingual.

"We're not going to stand the fact that our rights are going to taken away from us. We are here. We've been here for 400 years … there are two languages, official languages in Canada, not a small one and a big one," said the Hawkesbury, Ont., resident.

"We need to know that our democracy is going to be making sure that our minorities are well-treated."

About the Author

Krystalle Ramlakhan

Krystalle Ramlakhan is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I., Winnipeg and Iqaluit.

With files from Amara McLaughlin