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OPINION: French-language postsecondary education in Ontario: crisis or opportunity?

How the Laurentian and Université de l’Ontario français issues could open the door to Franco-Ontarians’ dream institution

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

President Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, gave new life to this phrase when he uttered it during Obama’s first term. What is routinely left out, though, is the second sentence in the quote: "…what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Is the current financial crisis at Laurentian University, and the simultaneous enrolment crisis at Université de l'Ontario français, such an opportunity? An opportunity to do something that we “could not do before?" This is the question Northern Policy Institute asked three leading thinkers to answer.

As those authors began to ponder that question, the University of Sudbury, with a long history of serving both the francophone and Indigenous communities, made a surprise announcement. It was “making its two charters available to these communities.” By sharing its charters, the University “seeks to develop postsecondary education by, for and with these communities.”

This announcement seems to have made the situation both more complex and more straightforward. Below is the first of the three pieces exploring why. The second piece can be accessed here, while the third installment can be read here.

(Disclosure: NPI’s board chair, Pierre Bélanger, co-authored an open letter calling for a reassessment of Laurentian’s bilingual status. University of Sudbury’s Board of Regents is chaired by Pierre Riopel, who is also a director of NPI. As per NPI’s policy of research independence from our board, neither Mr. Bélanger nor Mr. Riopel were involved in commissioning or reviewing the reports considering the future of French language instruction in Ontario.)

The last weeks of January 2021 were troubling for French-language postsecondary education in Ontario. News first came of the Université de l’Ontario français (UOF)’s failure to attract more than a handful of potential students for its opening in September. This was worrying for a hard-fought institution that almost didn’t see the light of day. Then came Laurentian University (LU)’s filing for creditor protection and disappearance of its professors’ research funds. Francophone professors at this bilingual institution, who regularly face smaller class sizes, worried for the future of their programs in what would likely be a bitter restructuring process.

Taking stock of the situation, some members of the Franco-Ontarian community with a long memory saw in this crisis the perfect pretext to rethink both of these institutions (and beyond), and to revisit Franco-Ontarians’ historic demands for a community-driven, pan-provincial French-language postsecondary network. What were these demands, and how could today’s crisis be a stepping stone towards their achievement? These questions will be the drivers of this brief.

A Franco-Ontarian university: more than just a school

But before we delve into the history of this debate, it is crucial to understand why the Franco-Ontarian community wishes for its own university. It is easy to consider a university as simply a place where tomorrow’s workforce learns technical skills and is being molded to fulfill the needs of the job market. I suggest that a university’s usefulness is far more important than granting diplomas; that, in the words of Michel Freitag, its mandate is not only technical, but also civilizational. A university is a place where a community creates a space for critical thought and reflection on its own destiny, and therefore participates in its perpetuation through time. For a minority community like “l’Ontario français,” that can’t be achieved in a bilingual institution, as has become clear since the 1960s.

Not only do bilingual institutions’ evolution mirror Ontario’s demo- and sociocultural forces, francophones becoming increasingly marginalized as the anglophone population’s growth outpaces theirs, but their operatives are generally poorly equipped, if not oblivious, to respond to the francophone community’s needs. In this context, French becomes a language of accommodation, not a language in which we allow a community to dream, to think, and to project itself into the world, to borrow Serge Miville’s words.

The development of French-language postsecondary education in Ontario through bilingual institutions

Incidentally, the bilingual postsecondary institutional model that emerged in Ontario since the 1960s is an anomaly in Canada. While bilingual public universities like the University of Sudbury (US) and the University of Ottawa (UO) were created from the classical colleges of Ontario, other provinces were charting a different course, granting their francophone communities their own institutions. Université de Moncton in New Brunswick was created from the fusion of three Catholic colleges in 1963; Campus St-Jean in Edmonton, Alberta, formerly Oblates-owned, was granted public status by the province in 1977.

While it is outside the scope of this paper to explain why the clergy chose bilingualism in Ontario, the historiography shows the Franco-Ontarian community took stock early of the limits of institutional bilingualism in education. The 1960s and 1970s were marked with parents’ fights with local school boards for the creation of French schools, in Penetanguishene, Sturgeon Falls, and others. In 1969, the Saint-Denis Committee on Franco-Ontarian culture criticized bilingual universities for failing to protect its francophone students from becoming marginalized and to offer them an equal variety of programs. It fell short, however, of demanding a homogeneous French university.

A collective awakening: initial claims for a French university

This claim was made for the first time at the 1969 Congress of the Association Canadienne- française de l’Ontario (ACFO), where a request was formulated for UO to become French. In Sudbury, the Franco-Parole conference in 1973 was key in raising awareness of francophones’ status within LU, an institution where, according to Fernand Dorais, they “don’t feel at home.” By 1979, youth organization Direction-Jeunesse will demand the creation of a francophone multi-campus community college and a French university. Despite social turmoil, few institutional changes will be made.

The 1980s are marked by unrest in bilingual institutions, with lack of French-language programs gradually recognized as a problem. A special edition of the Revue du Nouvel-Ontario in 1985 is entirely dedicated to the French-language university issue. According to the editor, the bilingual institution model had arrived at an “impasse.” This publication marks a turning point in the Franco-Ontarian collective reflection on the matter. Moreover, the provincial French-language K-12 education system had become autonomous since then, “having paved the way” for further autonomy. Anglo-Quebeckers’ three English-language universities were also cited as evidence that a French-language university in Ontario was not a pipe dream.

In 1989, the ACFO approached the Jesuits and asked that they give up US’s charter in order to create a French-language university, in vain. In 1991, the ACFO organized Franco-Parole II to discuss postsecondary institutional autonomy and claimed it as “a remedial strategy to the higher illiteracy and dropout rates among francophones and to participate fully in cultural, social, political and economic life 13 ” of the province. As a first step towards attaining a full-fledged French-language university, the creation of a French university college at LU was proposed. The proposal fell on deaf ears.

Growing concerns, growing debates: the creation of the RÉFO and the push for UOF at Queen’s Park

In the late 2000s, witnessing the widening gap between francophone and anglophone students and the generalized disappearance of social life in French on bilingual campuses, a number of francophone students decided to join forces and founded the Regroupement étudiant franco-ontarien (RÉFO) in 2009. Its mandate was to ensure that Franco-Ontarians could “study in French in the program and region of their choice, in a context where they manage the levers of their education.”

The RÉFO will see a golden opportunity when, in 2012, the French-language Commissioner’s Office of Ontario publishes a report on postsecondary education. It demonstrated that, while the Centre-South-West of the province had the fastest-growing francophone population, it lacked access to the vast majority of university programs. Moreover, francophones from that region were far more likely to enroll in English-language programs close to home than to attend a French school far from home, citing costs as an issue. The RÉFO will organize a province-wide consultation, les États généraux du postecondaire en Ontario français, in 2013, and a Summit in 2014. They will result in a report co-published with l’Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO) and the Fédération de la jeunesse franco-ontarienne (FESFO) in February 2015 calling on the government to create a French-language university with campuses in the francophone regions of the province, starting with Toronto where demand was most pressing. Nickel Belt NDP MPP France Gélinas will use this report as a starting point for the private member’s bill An Act to Establish the Université de l’Ontario français, which she will table at Queen’s Park in May of the same year. While this bill died on the order paper, it contributed in putting pressure on the government from the partisan arena.

In the Fall of 2016, the Ontario government mandated former official languages commissioner, Dyane Adam, to investigate the need and potential demand for such an institution. Almost a year later, the Adam report recommended the creation of a French-language institution managed “by and for” the Franco-Ontarian community. A “hub” for this institution would be created in Toronto in collaboration with other community organizations, but the creation of a “French-language university network with affiliations with [this new university] would radiate through “the other regions of the province” were considered future steps. Hearst, St-Paul, and US were seen as prime partners in this network. The government gave its green light to the project in December 2017, cancelled it in November of the following year, and finally put it back on the rails in August of 2019.

It is difficult to know exactly why the UOF has had such poor success in its first recruitment season. COVID-19 has created a wildly uncertain situation. The government was slow to approve the UOF’s four programs, making it impossible for the institution to begin recruitment until mid-October. And then there’s the issue of said programs: Digital Culture Studies, Economics and Social Innovation Studies, Urban Environment Studies, and Human Plurality Studies. The UOF was mandated by the government not to duplicate existing programs in other institutions, so it had to get creative. But the prospect of enrolling in programs with unrecognizable names for future employers, in a brand-new institution with no reputation, and in the midst of a pandemic no less, may have been too risky for most.

UOF’s troubles, Laurentian’s woes, and Sudbury’s surprise: charting a new course

This brings us to today’s situation. As these lines are written, US has just surprised the entire community by announcing its intention to become a fully French institution managed “by, for, and with” the francophone community, and to “welcome” the French programs currently offered at LU into its fold. Fruitful negotiations between these two institutions could open the door to a pan-Ontarian network of French-language institutions that could offer a vast array of programs, with the use of existing affinities and new technologies, allowing for students to use existing facilities in each region while enrolling in classes on all campuses. US could offer a significant portion of the “standard” programs, including some highly coveted diplomas in management, education, and health in the south of the province, and benefit from higher enrollment from a new, fast-growing population base. I would like to propose that Hearst University should participate in this network as well. While its student population is small, Hearst has a long-standing expertise in distance education, which could benefit this entire network.

This proposed outcome rests on a number of assumptions: first, that these institutions will be willing to play ball, and second, that the provincial government will give this arrangement its blessing. In the case of UOF, funding is provided by the federal government until 2023, so Queen’s Park may be open to more risk, but the resolution of LU’s restructuring is another story from the government’s perspective. It will need to be convinced that the transfer of these programs to US is a viable option.

This potential solution is also missing a significant region from the equation: eastern Ontario. As history has shown, Ottawa has been by far the most recalcitrant toward the creation of a new French-language institution. How the giant that is UO positions itself on this fast-evolving chess board will be crucial to the rest of the story; it may hinder, rather than support, the creation of this new network. Whether it decides to become an ally or an opponent remains, for now, anyone’s guess.

Northern Policy Institute is an independent social and economic think tank based in Northern Ontario with offices in Thunder Bay and Sudbury.