Laurentian University could face consequences from the Ontario Ombudsman under the French Language Services Act for its recent massive cuts to its programs, which included more than two dozen French-language programs.
French language services are constitutionally protected, said Canada Research Chair on Francophone rights and linguistic issues François Larocque.
Larocque, who is also a full professor at University of Ottawa, said those services aren’t just protected for those who speak French as a first language — around 600,000 people in Ontario — but anyone fluent in the language who wishes to access services in French.
She said that new consideration takes that number to 1.2 million, according to figures from the Ministry of Francophone affairs.
To get a better understanding of why, it helps to examine the history of the French Languages Services Act, but also, said Larocque, an Ontario health care facility.
It may help to know about Hôpital Montfort, a teaching hospital located in Ottawa. It is the preeminent francophone health-care facility in Ottawa, and one of the only ones outside of Quebec.
On February 24, 1997, The Ontario Health Services Restructuring Commission (HSRC) recommended the hospital be closed. The backlash from the francophone community was swift.
Protestors formed under the banner of SOS Montfort and took the government to court, suing under the French Languages Services Act.
The case was heard in front of the Ontario Divisional Court, awarded to the community, but then appealed and heard by the Ontario Court of Appeal. December of 2001 saw the francophone community win the appeal.
“They won because the Court of Appeal said the hospital is designated under the French Language Services Act,” said Larocque. “It was a mistake for the government to even attempt to restructure or cut the program to the hospital without considering what impact such cuts would have to an institution that is so vital to the Francophone community.”
Enter Laurentian University and the Ontario Ombudsman.
Recently, the Ontario Ombudsman, the current governing body for the French Language Services Act, sent out a call on social media. It read: “If you are personally affected by the changes to the offer of programs or services in French at #LaurentianUniversity, contact us,” with the website and contact information available.
“The same argument (as Montfort) is made here by those students who are now filing complaints to the French language service Commissioner, with respect to Laurentian,” said Larocque.
“This restructuring exercise is being done without regard, allegedly without regard, to the impact the restructuring will have on the Francophone minority population of Ontario, by the loss of an institution that is designated under this French Language Services Act.”
Marie-Pierre Héroux, a student within the Bachelor of Arts program with a major in History and a minor in French Studies, has filed a complaint with the Ontario Ombudsman.
“Vous pouvez comprendre que j’ai accueilli avec choc et regret la nouvelle non seulement que mes 2 programmes étaient abolis, mais que tous les professeurs de mes 2 départements (sauf 1 professeur en Études françaises) avaient perdu leur emploi," her letter reads.
It reveals her shock at having two of her programs abolished, and that all the professors within those departments, save one, lost their positions on April 12.
She also hoped to complete her Master of Arts in history, studying in her first language. It’s not just the cuts to the programs she says, but the loss to the community and her ability to work in French, as she has always dreamed.
“I want to be able to work in French, not just to use French as a ‘language’ at work, but I want to have a work that's related to a community, a culture,” said Héroux. But I know that for some other programs, it's going to be harder. If they do learn everything in English, and then they try to find a job in French, it's not going to be easy for them.”
She came to Laurentian University specifically because she wanted a small-town feel, similar to where she grew up in Embrun, Ontario. She has fallen in love with Sudbury now, and Northern Ontario, but says like other students, she may have to re-evaluate her plans to stay.
“Just being on a bilingual campus, not being in a fully French environment and having English friends, I've noticed I've lost a couple words in French and I sometimes have to have the words in English first in my mind before the French one. So there is definitely a risk for that.”
She adds: “If they study in English, they're more prone to looking for jobs in English as well. It is definitely more than just cutting some programs for money. It's a whole community who is at risk because of those cuts.”
The Ontario Ombudsman continues to collect the complaints and if you are francophone, either born or learned, you can file here.
When the Ontario Court of Appeals officially put to rest the idea of closing Hôpital Montfort, it was deemed, “essential to the Franco-Ontarian community.”
The hospital itself says on its website that “In this context, its (the hospital) role includes the following responsibilities:
- Maintain the French language
- Transmit French culture
- Promote Franco-Ontarian solidarity
- Protect the Franco-Ontarian community from assimilation
This is at the heart of what the French Languages Services Act is, says Larocque. “Both to obligate and to protect.”
It is an opportunity not just to align publicly funded institutions with Canada as a constitutionally bilingual country, but to ensure that those francophone rights are protected.
An important thing in Sudbury, a place Larocque considers a “capital of Franco-Ontarian culture.”
However, there may be too much love lost now, says Larocque. Especially with the renewed calls for a university “by, for and with” the francophone community.
“If the Act was able to save the Montfort hospital, in theory, it should also serve to protect the French language programming in Sudbury,” he said.
“But what's going on, on the ground, is that there's been a broken faith between Laurentian University leadership and the Francophone community. When the leadership filed its materials to the court under the bankruptcy restructuring rules, all these are public documents that are filed in court, they've made no effort to protect its bilingual mandate, or French language programming. No mention even of the French language Services Act.
“Basically, the francophone community in Sudbury feels like they've been thrown under the bus by Laurentian.”
You can find out more about filing a complaint by visiting the Ombudsman’s website.