TORONTO — A Progressive Conservative legislator who publicly denounced Ontario's decision to eliminate the independent office of the French-language services commissioner and a planned French-language university broke ranks with her party again Wednesday in supporting an attempt to overturn the measures.
Amanda Simard, a rookie legislator who represents a largely Franco-Ontarian riding, backed what she called an "important'' Opposition motion that aimed to revive the university project and the commissioner's office, saying the province's "partial backtracking'' on the issue wasn't enough.
Simard said she is not satisfied by the Tory government's announcement late last week that it would create a commissioner position within the office of the provincial ombudsman, establish a Ministry of Francophone Affairs, and hire a senior policy adviser on francophone affairs in the premier's office. No changes were announced in regard to the university.
The moves appeared aimed at quelling backlash over the university cancellation and the consolidation of the commissioner's office with the ombudsman's — controversial measures unveiled as part of the province's fall fiscal update.
Franco-Ontarians are not asking for additional rights or services, we're asking that the existing protections and entities remain in place.Amanda Simard
"The government's proposals since this initial announcement amount to one step forward but three steps back. If we make this kind of concession, there will be nothing left in a few years,'' an emotional Simard said in French in the legislature.
"Franco-Ontarians are not asking for additional rights or services, we're asking that the existing protections and entities remain in place,'' she added in English.
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Simard, who represents the eastern Ontario riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, served as a city councillor in the community of Russell before joining the Tory roster under then-leader Patrick Brown. She holds a law degree from the University of Ottawa and previously worked on Parliament Hill as a policy adviser.
The Tories, who have insisted they welcome Simard's input on the issue, had refused to let her speak on the motion Wednesday, saying she expressed interest in doing so too late. She nonetheless seized an opportunity to weigh in during the afternoon debate.
The non-binding motion did not pass, however, and Simard did not rise in time to have her vote added to those in favour. She pointed out her mistake but a request to have her vote counted by unanimous consent was rejected. She later voted against the bill that includes the changes to French-language services.
Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday he had listened to concerns about the changes and already offered some concessions. "I listened, I heard, we reacted,'' he said.
Ford has said the measures announced in the fall economic statement were necessary to bring down the province's deficit, although he has not said how much would be saved. Simard argued Wednesday the moves would not "contribute in any meaningful way'' to the provincial belt-tightening.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who introduced the motion to reverse the changes, said there was no warning or consultation on scrapping the university project.
Franco-Ontarians are too often forced to fight their government to ensure their rights are respected, she said.
"There are too few French-language counter services in too few regions throughout our province as we speak,'' she told the legislature.
"Government consultation on policy decisions are often only offered in English and far too often no consideration is given to the impact the government's decisions have on Franco-Ontarian people and communities.''
Under the current law, Ontario residents are entitled to receive services in French from the central office of any provincial government ministry or from a branch office located in one of 26 designated areas in the province.
Designated areas are those where francophones make up at least 10 per cent of the population, or in the case of a city, those that have at least 5,000 francophone residents. About 80 per cent of Ontario's francophones live in designated areas, which include Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and London, according to government data.
Access to French services varies across Ontario
French-language services are also provided by government agencies, but some — including hospitals and seniors' homes — are not legally required to do so. They may choose to offer services in French, however.
As a result, access to French-language services varies greatly, said Linda Cardinal, a professor at the University of Ottawa and research chair in Canadian Francophonie and public policies.
"It's not like someone in the majority, who can show up anywhere and will always actively be offered services in English,'' she said in French.
"A francophone who arrives somewhere can't expect to spontaneously be served in French — they always have to ensure it's a designated place,'' she said. "But even then, that service isn't always actively offered, often it's only on demand.''
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In a hospital, for example, even if it is designated bilingual, the person you interact with may not speak French, she said.
The loss of an independent French-language services commissioner will lead to the erosion of those services, Cardinal said, because the commissioner proactively monitored the availability of services in French and reminded the government of its obligations.
It also conducted studies that proved there was a need for additional French-languages services, such as a standalone university, she said.
The ombudsman, meanwhile, has more limited powers and only investigates issues in response to complaints, she said.