Franco-Ontarian Heritage Month, which occurs annually in February, recognizes the historical, cultural, and social impact that Francophones have had in Ontario. Imprint recently sat down with distinguished Waterloo professor emeritus François Paré to better understand the struggles and needs of Franco-Ontarians.
Paré, a retired French Studies professor, grew up in Québec and moved to Ontario after attaining his PhD in the United States. While identifying as Québécois, he has also become part of the Franco-Ontarian community overtime. Paré’s research revolves around cultural and linguistic minorities all over the world, including Francophone communities in Canada. When asked about his perspective on Franco-Ontarian Heritage Month, Paré explained that it sheds light on the long-standing French presence in Ontario since the 17th century.
“In English Canada — not just in Ontario — the French slice of history [has been] obliterated,” Paré observed. “It’s hidden, especially nowadays. Not only does it not exist, but it’s looked [at] with contempt in many cases.”
This obliteration of history is severing the connection between French-Canadians and their identity, heritage, culture, and language. The Francophone community in Canada is declining, but history may hold the key to preserving its cultural elements for future generations. For Paré, Franco-Ontarian Heritage Month is also an endeavor to re-establish and revive French-Canadian history.
There are many challenges that Franco-Ontarians face as a minority group, one of them being the decline of French-speaking communities. In fact, the Francophone community makes up just 4.7 per cent of the total Ontarian population, according to a demographics census in 2016.
“In some areas of Canada with long-standing Francophone communities, like southern Saskatchewan, northern Alberta, around Winnipeg and Manitoba, and some parts of southern Ontario, French is quickly disappearing,” Paré said. More specifically, the French language is disappearing from households across the country, as well as within the greater Canadian discourse and consciousness.
Paré expressed worry over a potentially compromised future for Francophones in Canada, adding that “there has been a shift [within] the last 50 years, [moving] from a high consciousness of [French] presence in Canada to the fact that French is under the radar at the moment.”
This decline directly affects the limited governmental institutions that are available for Franco-Ontarians. How can these institutions be sustained amidst the decline of the French-speaking population? Paré noted that this phenomenon is starting to become evident within Francophone school boards in Ontario. Due to the lack of enrolled Francophone students, some schools have been considering the acceptance of anglophone pupils as well.
Despite this, there remains a growing need for institutions run by and for Francophones. Paré emphasized that this is a key concept in the development of minority groups, as institutions hold a cultural dimension outside of the language itself. These institutions contribute to the representation of the Francophone community in Canada, which strengthens the connection to one’s French-Canadian roots and acts as an avenue to other Francophone services. Additionally, organizations run by and for Francophones directly spotlight, recognize, and target the ongoing needs of Francophone communities throughout the country.
A major challenge that Franco-Ontarians also struggle with is visibility, causing the community’s needs to fall under the radar. As previously mentioned, French presence has been disappearing from Canadian history, discourse, and consciousness.
“There needs to be pressure on public and private organizations to create a framework for French,” Paré concluded. “How do you do [this]? The only guarantor of French in Canada is the federal government.”
The promotion of French-Canadian culture starts with reshaping Canada’s brand in a way that promotes the role and importance of French in our country.
“The absence of framework is generalized everywhere,” Paré admitted, pointing toward the passive bilingualism that many Ontarian institutions adopt. For example, at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, all information on signs, screens, and paperwork may be written in both official languages. However, an inadequate number of employees are unable to provide services in French as required by law, resulting in multiple complaints from French-speaking passengers.
He further emphasized that Canada’s recreated brand needs to build upon a visible framework that truly recognizes Franco-Ontarians for who they are. This new framework must revive French-Canadian pride, illuminate Francophone communities and their needs, and advocate for bilingualism in Canada. While Franco-Ontarian Heritage Month may seem like a small step forward, it remains a crucial one in the right direction.