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Phoque Phorde (Fuck Ford) and the Politics of Canadian Bilingualism

“Phoque Phorde,” scrawled in green and white ink on protest placards, is a French phonetical spelling of the words “Fuck Ford,” and the way that Francophone Ontarians are expressing their anger towards the Mayor of Toronto. In November 2018, Rob Ford slashed funding for a French language university, sparking protests across the province that exposed anger over a disregard for minority language rights by the English-speaking province.

At the same time, and despite the visibility of Canada’s French-speaking minority, fewer Canadians are speaking either of the two European languages as a mother tongue. Though demographics are changing, the ghost of the old French/English divide or “two solitudes” still haunts Canada. Two separate societiesone Francophone and one Anglophonesupposedly split the country on a jagged fault line. Between French-speaking Québec and a majority Anglophone expanse from the Western Provinces to the Atlantic Coast, Canada is growing and changing around this old division. For Francophones in Ontario, a majority Anglophone province, the solitude has been painful. As languages shift, the question of French language rights that were federally guaranteed by Bill 101 in 1971 become increasingly moot, but persists as representative of the country’s legacy as a settler colony.

Increases in immigration from other parts of the world has brought into question the importance of the two-language system. For a country that prides itself on the image of tolerance, bilingualism limits inclusivity. Protests of French-speaking Ontarians expose the opportunity for an expansion of Canadian identity outside of “two solitudes,” to embody greater linguistic diversity.

The November 2018 protests of Francophone Ontarians complicate the narrative of the two solitudes. Franco-Ontarians took up banners to decry the slashing of funding for a Toronto French-language university and to demand greater linguistic representation especially in education in the 95% Anglophone province. This dispute epitomizes the unwillingness of the English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority to recognize the validity of each other’s qualms. For Francophones, this is the ability to live, work, and learn in French across the country, and for Anglophones, it is freedom from accommodating the costly needs of a bilingual country.

To the 740,000 French-speaking Ontarians, descendants of the French settlers who colonized the region in the 1600s, the fight for linguistic autonomy in a majority Anglophone province is a matter of deep personal identity. The federal government requires all national services to be available in both French and English and spends annually $2.4 Billion on this institutional bilingualism. Further, Francophones see their language as the bastion of a European-oriented culture that enriches Canada as an integral part of its founding identity. Campaigning throughout the 20th century elevated French Canada from a cultural backwater dominated by its English-speaking counterparts to a structurally recognized equal to English Canada. Essentially, the institutionalized bilingualism serves the French-speaking minorities within provinces outside of Quebec. For the vast majority of Canadians, it is a tax burden and a limitation of democracy.

"Protests of French-speaking Ontarians expose the opportunity for an expansion of Canadian identity outside of “two solitudes,” to embody greater linguistic diversity."

Through the requirement of bilingualism in French and English for high-level government positions, Canada is supposedly leveling the playing field for French speakers. In the 1970s, when the bilingualism law was passed, Quebec was indeed much less advantaged than the rest of Canada. Now the province makes up 20% of the national economy with 46% of people speaking both French and English, the highest rate of bilingualism of any province and far exceeding the 17.5% federal level of bilingualism. The significant populations of native English speakers sprinkled throughout the French majority incentivizes bilingualism. Bilingualism in Quebec is then accessible to everyone, while Anglophones in the rest of Canada have very little access to spaces that necessitate both languages. It makes sense why English speakers outside of Quebec would be opposed to systems that make their upward mobility contingent on institutionalized bilingualism, and why the question of Ontario, with its 740,000 French speakers, is so sensitive.

While bilingualism has entrenched itself in Canada as a whole, French-speakers in Ontario have seen their institutions dry up. The protests this year echo the 1997 protests over the closing of the Montfort Hospital, the only French-language hospital in the province. The closing of French-language services make Franco-Ontarians feel excluded from the very country in which they form a critical half of the founding identity. But while that founding identity—one of competitive colonization between Britain and France that erased indigenous people—undeniably contributes to Canada’s contemporary existence, it is perpetuated in the continued language conflict among French speaking minorities. This is not to say that French speakers should step off the podium, but rather that Canada should uplift language minority rights, from indigenous languages to the native languages of new Canadians.

To be sure, while strong bilingualism comforts Francophones, the debate over bilingualism avoids the rapidly growing languages outside of French and English: Tagalog is the fastest growing among Canadians, up 64% between 2006 and 2011, and Chinese and South Asian languages are spoken by over 2.2 million people. Thus, an educated elite are prescreened for any upward structural mobility based solely on the ability to speak French, a language thinly scattered outside of Quebec. Additionally, Indigenous Canadians have had no say in the English versus French binary and have an ongoing history of linguistic and cultural erasure. Whether English or French, Canada’s roots lie in exclusion.

Groups are combatting the systematic exclusion of languages other than English or French in places across Canada. This revival and renewal of language minorities has occurred in its beginning stages in British Columbia, where the provincial government supports mentorship programs for indigenous languages such as Xaayda Kil and University programs that help to coalesce community around language preservation. These programs set an example for broad-based inclusion through community-based organizations funded at the federal level. Applied to languages across the country, this community-based outlook could expand the definition of language inclusion outside of French and English binary. It would remedy the problems of a bilingualism that is never inclusive enough for the Francophones, and exclusive of Anglophones and New Canadians.

While the protests of the Francophone community in Ontario don’t seem to come from a place of desire for inclusivity outside of French and English, expanding inclusivity does not mean slashing French language services. Through recognition of limitations of bilingualism, Canada can approach a wider interpretation of linguistic inclusion, escaping the French and English binary that has been a defining struggle of Canada’s history. By heeding the hastily-scrawled signs that degrade the Toronto mayor in Francified English, the Canadian government can invest in language diversity, uplifting languages through mentorship and cultural programs from indigenous Canada and the languages of New Canadians. “Fuck Ford” should be written in more languages than French.

Photo: “Franco-Ontarian Flag