Last July 1st, in Ottawa, the celebrations turned into a spirit of mea culpa. In a gesture of suspicious benevolence, the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “We must recognize the errors of the past, accept our responsibilities, and strive so that every Canadian has a bright future.” He was, rightfully, referring to the Native peoples.
The day has not yet come when Ottawa will say similar things about francophones. Perhaps at the Dominion’s 200th anniversary, when Durham’s project will be sufficiently accomplished.
In linguistic matters the British North America Act, of which we are remembering the 150th anniversary of its enactment into law, served mainly to protect English schools in Quebec. On the other hand, the other provinces, all of them without exception, adopted between 1870 to 1912 laws banning French instruction over a period of decades. But why be spoil sports when francophones can celebrate the Canada that exists today? All right then, what about present day Canada?
The Rose-des-Vents school
Many moons ago, parents of the Rose-des-Vents primary French school in Vancouver got tired of sending their kids to a school made of rickety mobile homes with noisy classrooms, often without windows, and much smaller than those of an English school.
The school has no gymnasium or green spaces, not enough lockers, a miniscule library and only nine toilets for 350 kids and their teachers, and the school was meant for 200 students. The province seemed to think that if francophones didn’t like their decrepit, cramped and out of the way schools, they could go to an English school and face assimilation…
In May of 2010, the parents filled a lawsuit based on Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the same time, the French School Board launched its own class action concerning the larger question of public funding of French education. And so began the provincial government’s monumental obstinacy to deny the 70 000 francophones of a “just and equitable” financing for their schools.
In October of 2015, the supreme court of British Colombia ruled in favor of Rose-des-Vents. Determined, the province immediately appealed the decision. Multiplying obstructionist motions in the other lawsuit against the Conseil Scolaire Francophone (CSF), British Colombia invoked – successfully – an English colonial law dating back to 1731 to declare inadmissible the thousands of pages submitted as evidence by the CSF because they were written… in French.
Meanwhile, in April of 2015, after ten years of demands, the separate cause of the miserable Rose-des-Vents school won another victory, this time in front of the Supreme Court of Canada.
As for the case involving the CSF, in 2016, after a six year long mega-trial among the longest in the history of the Supreme Court of British Colombia, the francophones won a very partial victory.
While they were demanding reparations for 17 communities with little or no access to French educational services, the Court effectively only conceded to them 4 communities. In short, the Court concluded that the province violated the Charter with regard to only three existing schools, one of them being Rose-des-Vents. And of the 22 new schools demanded (415 million dollars), the ruling guarantees only one of them. As for the four other communities where it seemed obvious that the requirements of article 23 of the Charter were not respected, the Court ruled that such violations of the rights of francophones were nonetheless “reasonable and justifiable in a free and democratic society.”
In addition, the government was made to pay 6 million dollars as compensation for past under-funding of school transportation. “In the end, concluded Rémy Léger, a political scientist at Simon-Fraser University, we demanded 400 million for everything and we got 6 million for transportation.” And that doesn’t take into account the fact that on the day of the ruling the CSF had spent more than 17 million since the start of the proceedings.
No sooner that the ruling was given did hostilities flare up again, this time before the Supreme Court of Canada. The province wasted no time in launching an appeal aimed at overturning the ruling regarding transportation. Clearly, this minuscule gain on the part of francophones was too much for the provincial government, for whom it is better to spend lavish sums in lawyer’s fees rather than offering decent French schools to its linguistic minority.
Ironically, justice Loryl Russell even offered us this pearl of wisdom: “Schools for the minority may slow down the process of assimilation, but that would only prolong the inevitable.” In other words, “you are all doomed, so hurry up and go straight to hell!” Canadian Charter of Rights or not, the per generation assimilation rate of 75% among francophones in British Colombia is here to stay (and increase).
Howls of protest
The Fransaskois are also before the courts to force their government to respect article 23. The Franco-Newfoundlander were also fighting before the courts, before accepting last May to move some students to an English school.
And while some 800 000 Anglo-Quebecers have three universities financed at a level well beyond the proportion of anglophones, we are still waiting for the construction of the first francophone university in Ontario. Already, the Ontario government is backing down by suggesting that its 650 000 francophones can make do with a virtual university…
It is easy to imaging the howls of protest that would come from the “Rest of Canada” if Anglo-Quebecers had to overcome a small fraction of the obstacles that are constantly being put up before those who speak the language of Molière. Thus, being a minority in this country, it is the lot of francophones to always be in the wrong, regardless of what the Couillards and Fourniers of this world say or do…
By Maxime Laporte & Christian Gagnon, respectively president and counselor general of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal