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Blue ribbon panel report misses the mark for francophones in Ontario

The three options proposed concerning small French-language universities in the report have been rejected by academic stakeholders.


Some recommendations in the recent blue ribbon panel report, Ensuring Financial Sustainability for Ontario’s Postsecondary Sector, were met with a chilly reception from the Franco-Ontarian university community. In particular, although members welcomed the proposed funding increases, they did not share the doubts raised about the financial sustainability of Ontario’s two smallest French-language institutions.

Moreover, according to a note in an appendix of the report, the sole French-speaking member of the blue-ribbon panel, Maxim Jean-Louis, opposed two of its recommendations: exploring three options for making the smallest French-language universities financially sustainable and conducting a formal review of opportunities for consolidating small, northern Ontario institutions.

The first proposed option is federating Université de Hearst and Université de l’Ontario français (UOF) under the University of Ottawa, which, according to the panel, has the size and expertise to fulfill this role.

The second option is to establish a partnership between U de Hearst, UOF and two Ontario French-language colleges, Boréal and La Cité, “with a special mission to offer career-oriented programs.”

The third is to establish an “integrated network or consortium” linking all bilingual and French-language postsecondary institutions, with the U of Ottawa once again at the head. This resembles a project UOF and U de Hearst were pursuing without the bilingual universities and for which an answer from the provincial government is still pending.

In a letter sent to Alan Harrison, chair of the blue ribbon panel, UOF president Pierre Ouellette insisted that “the three options you propose are inadmissible. They take no account whatsoever of the principle of governance “by and for” Francophones, which has been a hard-fought victory after decades of demands.”

U de Hearst president Luc Bussières believes the panel wholly disregarded Francophone perspectives and realities. “The “by and for” principle appears nowhere in the document,” he deplored in an interview with a local radio station.

In his letter, Mr. Ouellette asked Dr. Harrison “to retract the entire section [three and a half pages] on the French-language education system from your report, or at least to correct [the] inaccuracies published.”

According to him, “the report demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of and a significant bias against Université de l’Ontario français.” As an example, he cited a paragraph seemingly included to show that bilingual and French-language institutions didn’t agree on whether a French-language university should be created in Ontario.  “Is the aim to challenge the principle of governance “by and for” Francophones?,” he questioned.

Mr. Ouellette also noted that the blue ribbon panel used enrolment data that is out of date by at least one year and that international students no longer make up the majority of the student population – about half are of Canadian origin.

“Finally, it is worth mentioning UOF launched during an unprecedented global pandemic.” Mr. Ouellette recalls that 36 per cent of Ontario’s 600,000 Francophones live in central and southwestern Ontario, which his university serves. He believes it’s far too early to judge the success of a university that opened its doors just two-and-a-half years ago.

Student reactions

The Regroupement étudiant franco-ontarien was similarly critical about the options presented in the report. In a press release, the student organization stated that placing the U of Ottawa in charge of anything for Francophones was out of the question. “[D]ecades of struggle for Francophone education have proven that the bilingual model typified by the U of Ottawa and other institutions is incompatible with the development and vitality of our communities,” said its executive director, François Hastir.

The third option, however, would be acceptable to the Regroupement étudiant franco-ontarien if the network had “entirely independent francophone governance.”

Both Students and administrators welcomed the report’s recommendations to boost the funding of postsecondary institutions and to improve the Ontario Student Assistance Program.

However, students said they fear the adverse effects of a tuition hike. “The interest that kicks in after [graduation] becomes a heavy burden that limits personal growth and socioeconomic stability,” said Association des étudiant.e.s francophones de l’Université Laurentienne president Nawfal Mercier-Sbaa.

Two weeks before the report’s unveiling, the Canadian Federation of Students held a day of action to call for lower tuition, which, the student associations argued, would help reduce the number of drop-outs and increase student enrolment.

Nothing for Université de Sudbury

The Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO) was pleased with the panel’s recommendation for more investment. However, it took issue with the funding formula for French-language institutions.

“Given the differences between the French- and English-language markets, we would like to see a funding formula with a stronger focus on encouraging institutions to collaborate and develop cooperative partnerships to truly meet the needs of Francophone students,” said the director general of the AFO, Peter Hominuk. The report appears to encourage collaboration.

One notable exclusion is that the report makes no mention of Université de Sudbury. On June 30, the Government of Ontario rejected a funding request from the French-language institution. As such, it is still not officially a part of the Ontario university network.

“We are a bit disappointed that the report made no mention of this in its funding formula,” Mr. Hominuk said. “However, the community still wants the U de Sudbury to resume serving the needs of the Franco-Ontarian community as soon as possible.”

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