Ontario’s political leaders don’t speak French well

TORONTO — A small “hello” from the circumstances here, an arduous “welcome” there. For the first time in several election campaigns, none of Ontario’s political leaders has truly mastered French.

The two previous Liberal leaders, Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty, were fluent in Molière’s language. They could communicate directly with Franco-Ontarians. It is more cumbersome for the current boss of the Liberals. Steven Del Duca has been teaching French occasionally since 2013, the party says. However, he does not yet dare to say a few words in his prepared speeches.

“Like anyone who didn’t grow up with the language, speaking French fluently is a long-term project for him,” said liberal spokesperson Andrea Ernesaks.

Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford said last year he had stopped taking French classes because of the pandemic. He would have taken them back. He says he learned a few phrases from time to time from his minister in charge of francophone affairs, Caroline Mulroney.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath has taken French lessons in the past, but this is currently not the case.

GroenLinks leader Mike Schreiner is taking lessons with a private teacher, according to a spokesperson.

According to Statistics Canada, Ontario has more than 600,000 French speakers. It’s harder to get in touch with them if you don’t speak their language, says Geneviève Tellier, a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa.

“The good news for the chefs is that none of them speak French, none of them have an advantage over the others,” she adds.

However, the president of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO), Carol Jolin, sees positive signals on the Ontario political scene. More and more candidate deputies turn out to be bilingual. His team met a group of conservative candidates and only one of them did not understand French. At another meeting with 11 New Democrats, nine were able to hold a conversation in French.

“Things are changing. I have been following the activities of the Legislative Assembly for 10 years and I see change, positive change,” said Mr. Jolin.

Bigger Problems

In his view, the fact that the chiefs do not speak French will not affect voters as much as important issues such as access to health care or long-term care in French.

“Many French speakers have trouble finding a GP. There is significant regional disparity in access to health care,” said Mr. jolin.

Access to long-term care is also a problem. He recalls that 5.5% of seniors in the province are French speakers. However, less than two percent of the institutions are covered by the French law on language services.

The AFO wants to expand the francophone space in Ontario. Currently, about 80% of French speakers live in the 27 designated regions where the government is required to provide services in both languages. This means that one in five French speakers does not receive services in their language.

Kelly Burke, Ontario Commissioner for French Language Services, reminds us that access to health care continues to be one of the key issues she faces. Another concern is the lack of manpower.

“The French-speaking population wants to know more about this subject. She wants to know how we are training the French-speaking workforce for the future,” she says.

Maintaining post-secondary education in French is also an important issue in solving employment challenges, says Mr. jolin.

“We know that [nos jeunes] study at university in English, that they take the programs in English, that they do their internship in English, and that they work in English. Worse for the Sudbury community is that they don’t come back,” he laments.

“There is a large French-speaking community in the Sudbury area. These graduates must be able to provide services in French. Unfortunately, that will not be the case in the coming years.”

The north, especially Sudbury, and eastern Ontario will be two regions that must be in the crosshairs of political parties to reach French-speaking voters, Pre Tellier said.

Driving Glengarry-Prescott-Russell will be one to watch. She had elected a Conservative MP, Amanda Simard, in the last election, but she left the Conservative caucus and joined the Liberals after the government cut services to French speakers.

In general, the Conservative Party has a lot to do to restore the confidence of the French speakers, says Pre Tellier. The community fears further cuts.”

In the budget presented Thursday, the Progressive Conservatives pledge to invest $300,000 from this year to support the development of French language lessons and materials. According to them, this will “help make services more accessible to French-speaking residents of long-term care facilities, as well as their families.” They are also committed to promoting the francophone workforce in Ontario and boosting job creation.

On its platform, the NDP pledges to restore the independence of the French Language Services Commissioner and give the organization the power to evaluate public services under the French Language Services Act. It also plans to expand access to health care for francophones and invest to ensure a university for and by francophones in Sudbury.

The liberals want to increase equitable access to French immersion programs, invest in new schools, recruit and train more French-speaking teachers, and increase the number of French-speaking educators.

The Greens, whose website is in English only, have pledged to recruit more French-speaking teachers, work with French-language school boards and improve the availability of mental health services for French-speakers.

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