My grandmother, Florence Caruso, died this summer at 93 ½ (the fractions start to matter again in your 90s). She was born Florence Deschènes but the nuns took the accent grave off her last name (and that of her siblings) in elementary school. My grandmother would have been two years old when Règlement 17, a law that made French language schools illegal in Ontario, was repealed.
When that law came into force in 1912, the Franco-Ontarian community fought back (including a memorable incident in Ottawa that saw mothers wield their hatpins as weapons against anglophone school inspectors), and the law was eventually changed. While no longer illegal, French-language schools did not fall under the auspices of Ontario’s Education Act for another 41 years. The lack of funding and support that arrangement caused meant that many children who spoke French at home went to English schools.
My grandmother went on to marry my grandfather Joseph, the child of Italian immigrants, who was an eight-year-old altar boy when the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan blew a hole in floor of the only Catholic church in Barrie, Ont. Florence and Joseph, who were most comfortable speaking French and Italian respectively, chose to speak only English to their children.
There were no French schools in Barrie, and English was probably a hedge against the bigotry they had both faced. Under xenophobic pressure and without support from any cultural or educational infrastructure, they assimilated. My aunts and uncles can swear in French and Italian but can’t communicate beyond a few choice words.
My family story isn’t unusual. My husband’s grandmother, who grew up in Peterborough, Ont., had the English-sounding maiden name of Bosley. Recently, the family genealogist discovered that it had been anglicized from Beausoleil a generation before her. Today, even anglophone bastions like Peterborough and Barrie have French-language schools, but before families could easily access French-language education, assimilation was often the logical consequence perhaps even the intended outcome. As Jews well know, it takes chutzpah and grit to persist in maintaining an identity in opposition to the mainstream. It’s hard work and, for lots of reasons, sometimes people can’t – or don’t – persist.
That’s why we should care about the Ontario provincial government’s decision to cancel plans for a French-language university in Toronto and eliminate the province’s French language services commissioner. Minority rights matter, whether it’s our minority or not.
In Sudbury, the issue hits very close to home as we have several members of the Jewish community, myself included, who are also members of the francophone community. But, even if you never speak French and rarely hear it spoken where you live, this fight should matter to you.
Linguistic diversity is not the only diversity that matters, to be sure. But maintaining that duality and extending it to include other groups is foundational to the tolerance and inclusiveness that allows us all to maintain our cultural, religious, ethnic, and language identities, something that is critical to the survival of every minority community in this country.
Intolerance against French-speaking Canadians is just the tip of a xenophobic iceberg. The Ontario government’s decisions demonstrate at best an indifference and at worst a hostility for the diversity that is fundamental to the Canadian project.
Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau once said: “A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.” No one knows that better than the Jewish community. The anti-Semitism which makes us vulnerable also makes us more attuned to the other forms of intolerance around us. We need to stand up and name it when we see it. Vive la différence!