TORONTO — A token bonjour here, an offhand bienvenue there — there may not be much more French than that spoken when Ontario’s party leaders soon hit the campaign trail, as for the first time in recent years, none is fluent in the language.
The previous two Liberal premiers, Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty, spoke French and meant at least one leader could directly communicate with Franco-Ontarians. Steven Del Duca, the party’s leader since 2020, has taken French lessons intermittently since 2013, the party said. But he doesn’t often attempt much in prepared remarks.
“As with any non-native speaker, French fluency is a long-term endeavour for him,” said spokeswoman Andrea Ernesaks.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford said last year he stopped taking French lessons during the pandemic, but that he was “back at it” and learned phrases from time to time from Caroline Mulroney, his francophone affairs minister.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has taken some French lessons but isn’t, currently.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner has been taking French lessons with a tutor for the last few years, a spokesman said.
There are more than 600,000 francophones in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada. Not speaking their language makes directly connecting with francophone voters more difficult, said University of Ottawa political science professor Genevieve Tellier.
“The good news for all of them is that because none of them speak French, none of them have an advantage, or a disadvantage,” she said.
Carol Jolin, president of l’Assemblee de la francophonie de l’Ontario, said he doesn’t think it will matter that much to voters, but a few key issues will.
One is access to health care and long-term care in French, Jolin said.
“Lots of francophones struggle just to find a family doctor, and there’s a very large regional disparity with regard to accessing the health services,” he said.
In long-term care, Jolin said francophones represent 5.5 per cent of the of the seniors in the province and less than two per cent of long-term care homes are designated under the French Language Services Act.
Jolin’s organization is also urging the expansion of francophone space, regions in which the government has to provide services in both languages. There are currently 27 such regions that reach about 80 per cent of the francophone population, but it means that one in five people is underserved, he said.
French Language Services Commissioner Kelly Burke said health is always one of the key issues she hears about, and one overriding concern for the community is a francophone labour shortage.
“The other big sector that I keep focusing in on that, I think the general francophone population is very much keen on hearing more on is, our workforce…and how we are preparing that francophone workforce for the future,” she said.
Burke released a recent report on Laurentian University in Sudbury, finding that it breached the French Language Services Act when it cut 72 programs, including 29 French-language ones, amid insolvency proceedings. The government could have done more to save them, she said.
Protecting post-secondary education in French is key to addressing labour challenges, Jolin said.
“What we know is that when they go to English university, they do their own program in English, they do their apprenticeship in English, and they will work in English and the worst for the community, the Sudbury community is that they don’t come back in their area,” he said.
“There’s a good Francophone community around Sudbury, and you need those graduates to be there to give the services in French. Unfortunately, that won’t happen, at least for a few years.”
Jolin said his membership wants to see Laurentian continue with English programming and for the next government to help ensure French programming is transferred to the University of Sudbury, which was affiliated with Laurentian before its creditor protection but is now independent.
The north, particularly around Sudbury, and eastern Ontario are two important regions for political parties looking to target francophone voters, Tellier said.
One race to watch will be in the largely French-speaking riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, where Amanda Simard was elected in 2018 as a Progressive Conservative, but she quit the caucus soon after the government made cuts to French services. She later joined the Liberals.
“In general, the Conservative party has to do a lot of things to try to build the trust of francophones again,” Tellier said. “I think the community is somewhat scared, that cuts could occur anytime.”
One of those cuts was to axe the office of the French-language services commissioner and bring it under the umbrella of the Ontario ombudsman. Burke, who holds the position now, said she is committed to protecting French services, but she does still hear complaints about it.
Jolin said AFO will keep working on that file. But aside from none of the leaders speaking French he sees positive signs. More and more candidates seem to be bilingual, he said. His team recently met with a group of PC candidates and only one couldn’t understand French. At a meeting with 11 New Democrats, nine were able to function in French, he said.
“I see a change there,” Jolin said. “I’ve been hanging around Queen’s Park for 10 years now and I see a change and it’s a nice change.”
The Progressive Conservative budget, which was tabled Thursday and is serving as their platform, promised $300,000 starting this year for educational sessions and program materials to make long-term care services more accessible to francophones. It also said they are committed to promoting the francophone workforce and stimulating job creation.
The NDP has promised in its platform to restore the independent French Language Services Commissioner’s office, empower it to oversee “sweeping” data collection on French service delivery, prioritize and expand health care in French, and ensure the University of Sudbury is by and for francophones.
The Liberals have committed to increasing equitable access to French-Immersion programs, investing in new and repaired schools to meet demand for French language education, recruit, train and retain more French-language teachers and increase the number of French-language early childhood educators.
The Greens have promised to recruit and retain more French-language teachers, work with French school boards to assess their needs, and improve the availability of mental health supports in French.