Although the Franco-Ontarian community is pleased that the Government of Ontario intends to follow the recommendations put forward by an ad-hoc planning committee in August 2017, and introduce legislation for the creation of a French-language university in Toronto, some are asking that the suggested formula be improved.
A dream held by Franco-Ontarians for decades, the French university could welcome its first 300 students in 2020. This number is expected to increase yearly to more than 2,000 students (full-time equivalent) by 2028-29.
“We were happy, for sure, and we celebrated the achievements made,” states Jocelyn Leblanc, co-president of the Franco-Ontarian Students’ Association. “We were also pleased that the university would be autonomous.”
But François Charbonneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s school of political studies, doesn’t think the project described in the report meets the needs of Franco-Ontarian students. “It would have been better to propose a solution to the global problem of accessibility and program availability for Francophones in Ontario.”
Among other things, he criticizes the government’s decision to establish the university in southwestern Ontario. “The best solution, which would have required real political courage, would have been to create a large Franco-Ontarian university through an amicable division of the University of Ottawa and the addition of semi-autonomous, but complementary, campuses in northern and southern Ontario,” he wrote in an op-ed published in Le Droit on August 30, 2017.
This observation is consistent with RÉFO’s main demand since the announcement. “We really wanted [the university to have] a provincial mandate, somewhat similar to that of the University of Moncton, in New Brunswick,” notes Mr. Leblanc.
He also worries that the programs will not be exclusive to the proposed Francophone university, as was the case when the province created French-language colleges. “We can’t assume that all of the French study programs will be offered at the university. That isn’t the plan.”
Although the report lists education, health, finance, commerce, communications and technology, administration and civil service as “labour market sectors with the highest demand for French-speaking university graduates,” instead the planning committee recommends focusing on four main areas. In fact, the decision to prioritize programs centred on human plurality, urban environments, a globalized economy and digital cultures has raised eyebrows, including those of Dr. Charbonneau, who calls them “esoteric programs.”
Mr. Leblanc sees it as a measure to “counter the assimilation of Franco-Ontarians,” and feels it is important that the university be “governed by and for Franco-Ontarians.” In fact, the “by and for” concept is one of the only aspects of the project that everyone supports.
Inspired by the Quebec model for Anglophones, “by and for” has enjoyed good press since the Supreme Court declared that if, for example, you are part of a minority Francophone community, you have the right to attend a Francophone institution, and that school should ideally be governed by Francophones. “I understand why they picked that formula, but not why it would apply to only 300 people rather than to the entire Franco-Ontarian community,” notes Dr. Charbonneau.
Nearly two months after Kathleen Wynne’s government announced its plans for the university, the bill had yet to be introduced at Queen’s Park. With Ontario’s general election scheduled for June 7, 2018, time is running out.
While Mr. Leblanc advocates “giving the government a chance,” he doesn’t hide the fact that he is worried and is following the issue very closely. “They need to get it passed early this fall. If not, it will likely become a key election issue. And if it does become an election issue, it might never get off the ground.”
Dr. Charbonneau, however, is a bit more optimistic. “It is important to recognize that the political will is there. I don’t think it’s merely an attempt to win more votes.” He believes that given the scope of the project, “it would be political suicide to make this type of announcement and not deliver on it. There hasn’t been an announcement like it since French-language colleges were created in the early 1990s.”
The minister of francophone affairs, Marie-France Lalonde, has been reassuring. “Right now, everything indicates that the bill will be tabled before December 14, 2017,” she affirms. “It could be passed in the House before the end of the year.”
The government is committed to putting the bill to a vote, and intends to find the funding needed to launch the project in 2018-19. The total estimated investment is $83.5 million over seven years, including $71.5 million in start-up funding and $12 million to design and outfit the building. In order to secure the financing, the government is also counting on the Trudeau administration to kick in $41.75 million.
While the planning committee’s report states that ”the rule so far for French-language education in minority contexts is that the federal government provides at least 50 percent of start-up funds, operating and special support funding for [. . .] postsecondary institutions that function in French,” an agreement has yet to be reached on that point. “The current federal government applauded our announcement and wanted to explore ways to structure a financial partnership,” notes Ms. Lalonde. “Now that we’ve reached a more decisive stage, the Ontario ministry of advanced education and skills development has entered into more substantive discussions with our federal counterparts.”
It should be noted that the Ontario government intends to set up an interim technical committee that will continue to move forward with the recommendations until the bill is tabled and the financial planning is under way.