TORONTO — Quebec’s premier pressed his Ontario counterpart to reconsider controversial changes to French language services on Monday but couldn’t sway Doug Ford, who maintained francophones in his province would continue to be well served.
Francois Legault said he expressed his disappointment with the Ontario government’s decision to cancel a planned French-language university and consolidate the province’s French language services commissioner with the ombudsman’s office.
Legault, whose Coalition Avenir Quebec swept to power last month, said he wasn’t satisfied with Ford’s explanation for the moves and would continue to push for more French-language services, but did not say what further steps he could take.
“I don’t think it sends a good message to francophones but it’s not my decision,” he said after his discussion with Ford, the first official meeting between the two premiers.
Legault said he reminded Ford in their meeting that Quebec has three English-language universities and that both provinces must make efforts to deliver services to language minorities.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives announced the changes last Thursday in their first fiscal update since taking office in June.
The Ford government, which has vowed to find billions in efficiencies each year, has said the university was not a financially viable project, though it could not say how much would be saved by scrapping it. Nor could it say what savings would come from combining the watchdog offices.
Ford defended the measures again on Monday, saying the university was not feasible in light of the province’s deficit, which his government has said now sits at $14.5 billion. Critics have disputed that figure, however, saying it includes spending promises made by the previous Liberal regime that the current government has scrapped.
“The difference between myself and Premier Legault — and I told him this — ‘You inherited a billion-dollar surplus, I inherited a $15-billion structural deficit.’ He understood that but again he has to represent the people of Quebec,” Ford said.
The premier noted Ontario already has 10 universities and colleges offering courses in French.
Ontario’s minister responsible for francophone affairs, meanwhile, said transferring the role of the French language services commissioner to the ombudsman was part of the Progressive Conservatives’ mandate to reduce the size of government, rather than a cost-cutting measure.
“All that work is going to continue within the office of the ombudsman,” said Caroline Mulroney, suggesting part of the criticism levelled at the government was due to misinformation.
The government’s assurances did little to quell critics, however, with politicians in several provinces and multiple levels of government denouncing the changes.
Ontario’s Opposition New Democrats said the changes put the constitutional rights of the province’s approximately 600,000 francophones at risk.
“The Ford Conservatives are telling us clearly that we do not count, that our constitutional rights to be served and educated in French are unimportant,” NDP legislator Guy Bourgouin said in a statement.
The Liberals said the government made a unilateral decision to axe a project that the Progressive Conservatives had previously promised to carry out, and predicted the move would have a significant impact on francophones.
“They’ve just reopened a language debate that I never, never, never thought that we would have in 2018,” said Liberal legislator Marie-France Lalonde.
The measures drew attention on Parliament Hill on Monday, with the federal Liberals calling on Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to urge Ford to reverse course. Federal New Democrats also deemed the changes an attack on francophones.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau previously said he was disappointed by the changes, while Scheer said over the weekend that he had “expressed his concerns” to Ford.
New Brunswick’s former premier and now leader of the Opposition, Brian Gallant, also voiced concerns in an open letter Monday, saying Ford’s measures could jeopardize the vitality of francophone communities.
Issues around French services were only one the topics Ford and Legault discussed. The two premiers also talked about hydroelectricity and interprovincial trade, saying they hoped to increase trade between the two provinces to $100 billion a year from roughly $80 billion.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press