Franco-Ontarians protest outside MPPs' offices against Ford's service cuts
Thousands demonstrate in nearly 40 communities, saying 'Ford needs to review his Canadian history'
On Saturday afternoon, thousands of French-speakers in nearly 40 communities across Ontario decried Premier Doug Ford's cuts to some French-language services.
The protests — organized by the Francophone Assembly of Ontario, which represents 740,000 Franco-Ontarians — took place in front of MPPs' offices of all political stripes and in every corner of the province.
"Franco-Ontarians have the right to have our rights protected," Quebec actor Lina Blais said outside Ford's constituency office where 300 people gathered.
"Our population justifies our institutions."
This "resistance" is a response to Premier Doug Ford's move to downgrade the province's independent watchdog on francophone services and repeal funding for a long-awaited French-language university in the Greater Toronto Area.
The decision has prompted immediate and growing backlash from Ontarians, the federal government and Quebec's new premier, François Legault, who have all repeatedly asked Ford to reverse the cuts.
One of Ford's MPPs, Amanda Simard, broke ranks to criticize the move, saying she was disappointed and frustrated. Earlier this week, the eastern Ontario MPP left the Progressive Conservative's to sit as an independent.
Her departure from Ford's caucus means he has lost the only francophone among the 76 PCs elected in June — widening the schism between him and Ontario's French community who feel he has undermined their history.
Simard stood among those rallying on the doorstep of her constituency office in Hawkesbury, one of the largest communities in her riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell.
"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, then reinstated after a backlash.
"I think now I will be able to speak more freely."
She met with three-year-old Glorianne Gaudreau-Cheff, who was dressed in green-and-white, the colours of the Ontario francophone flag, and carrying a sign that read: "I might not be big enough to have a voice, but please don't take away my rights."
The Francophone Assembly of Ontario estimated more than 13,500 people attended the day of action — many of whom were in Toronto, Ottawa and areas in northern Ontario, such as Sudbury and North Bay.
"This is the first time in history that Franco-Ontarians have mobilized like this in every corner of the province," said Gilles LeVasseur, a business and law professor at the University of Ottawa.
He chanted French slogans like "strong franco" and "we are, we will be" with nearly 1,500 people at the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa, where the French-speakers gathered on Saturday.
Politicians from all three levels of government were present at the Ottawa rally, including federal Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie Mélanie Joly, who called the event a "historic moment."
"When our governments want to touch our linguistic rights, they should not weaken but strengthen them," she told the crowd that erupted in resounding cheers of approval.
Over 600 demonstrators also carried placards scrawled with messages, like "respect franco" and "Franco-Ontarians are not just any minority," while making their voices heard in Sudbury and North Bay.
Display of solidarity across Canada
The Ford government's cuts sent shockwaves through other French-speaking communities across Canada.
In provinces like Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, communities raised concerns about what the move signals to francophone minorities.
As a result, joint rallies were also held Saturday in Regina, St. Boniface, Man., and Moncton, N.B.
"When I learned about the cuts in Ontario, it was really devastating," said Geneviève Latour, who organized the rally of 100 people in Moncton.
She added: "Seeing the momentum of solidarity here in Moncton and across Acadia, it really gives me hope."
'You have to protect the two languages'
Pierre Joanette was one of dozens of people who drove around 100 kilometres west from Montreal to Hawkesbury to stand with Simard in solidarity with Ontario francophones. He pointed out the importance of protecting the province's French identity as a cornerstone of Canadian history.
"We believe in Canada you have to protect the two languages," he said.
According to the latest census, French is the mother tongue of more than half a million people in Ontario.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other people braved the cold weather and gathered outside Caroline Mulroney's constituency office in Bradford. The York-Simcoe MPP was named as the minister of francophone affairs on Nov. 22 after the PCs backtracked on some cuts affecting Ontario francophones.
Mulroney, who is also the province's attorney general, has vowed to continue to advocate for the standalone French-language university, but noted the province's fiscal realities prevent the PCs from funding it right now.
The premier's spokesperson, Simon Jefferies, defended the government's decision, saying the PCs recognize the "significant and ongoing contributions" of Franco-Ontarians and are committed to taking steps to preserve the French language in the province.
"Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals left our government with a $15-billion deficit, and we look forward to the day when our province is in a financial position to proceed with projects like the French-language university," Jefferies said in an email to CBC News.