It takes a bull-in-a-china-shop level of political dexterity to transform a weak policy proposal from a government obliterated in the ballot box into a source of major political opposition. That is exactly what Ontario Premier Doug Ford accomplished – in less than six months in office.
The cancelation of funding for the Université de l’Ontario français was treated by the government as the elimination of a line item in the provincial budget, which might upset direct beneficiaries in the short-term but would be justified as fiscal restraint.
However, after demonstrations in more than 40 communities around the province and the defection of MPP Amanda Simard from the Progressive Conservative party, it is clear that the francophone community is not letting this go. The government’s clumsy attempts to contain the issue through ministerial appointments have not registered with them.
There is no question that the original proposal for the French language university, crafted by the previous Liberal government, was weak. The idea that creating a university based in Toronto would help enhance access to higher education for the francophone community in the province was called “a bad joke.” The idea that market demand could justify the project was regarded as wishful thinking.
What the government still seems to be unclear on, even a year later – and after MTCU Minister Merrilee Fullerton declared to be “fully committed to the success” of the university – is that they are no longer just squashing a poorly concocted policy idea from the Liberals. They are shooting down an institution that, as incipient as it was, represented a perennial social and cultural aspiration.
Arguably, in doing so, the Conservatives are showing some disregard for the work that had been done and what it represented for the francophone community. A governing council had been set up and funded to plan and design programs for the new institution. An interim president had been appointed, and a range of activities were in motion for the university to open its doors to students in 2020. And yet, the university leadership learned about the cancellation of funding through the government’s economic outlook and fiscal review announcement.
A more astute government might have backed its initial position on the project by showing some willingness to problem-solve with the UOF in face of budget constraints. More extensive partnerships and resource-sharing with other universities and colleges could have been considered to reduce start-up costs – estimated at $85 million – with the government itself taking a leading role in brokering these relationships. A proactive stance to deal in good-faith with the conundrum of helping a new university get off the ground while waving the flag of austerity might have gone a long way. UOF has no sunk costs or legacies to protect; it would be in its best interest to arrive at a negotiated consensus to ensure its survival.
Instead, the government doubled down on the decision not to fund UOF when faced with protests, offering no path forward. Meanwhile, the university leadership hopes that a case might be made for federal funding under the Action Plan for Official Languages for supporting a minority language institution. Still, this hinges on involvement and support from the Ontario government, which has yet to provide some indication that it actually intends to salvage UOF from an early demise.