Ontario apologizes for 1912 law in French in schools

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Premier Kathleen Wynne apologized in the Legislative Assembly last Monday on behalf of the Government of Ontario for a 1912 regulation that effectively outlawed public French-language education in primary schools for more than a decade. The government of the time introduced Regulation 17 with the stated goal of raising the quality of English-language education in “English-French” primary schools.

Regulation 17 owed a great deal of its force and controversy to G. Howard Ferguson, native of Kemptville and prime mover in the Conservative Government of measures to curtail French language services in education in Ontario.

The regulation prohibited primary schools from using French as a language of instruction or communication beyond grade 2 and capped the amount of time primary school students could receive instruction in French as a subject to one hour per day. It also made it dependant on parents to request education in French for their children. Many teachers and schools refused to obey the law. In 1913, the government responded by introducing Regulation 18, which sought to strengthen compliance with the provisions of Regulation 17. Schools that ignored the regulations would lose their funding, and teachers would lose their certification.

The Ontario government stopped enforcing Regulation 17 after 1927, but it remained formally in effect until 1944. In 1984, Ontario officially recognized the right of all Francophones to receive French-language education in elementary and secondary schools.

In her speech to the Assembly on Monday, the Premier said: “On behalf of the Government of Ontario, I apologize to all Franco-Ontarians whose families and communities were affected by Regulation 17. The Franco-Ontarian community has shown tremendous courage and tenacity in its long struggle to ensure that Francophone culture is valued as integral to the vibrant and prosperous Ontario we know today.”

Ferguson had been born and raised in Kemptville, served on the village council and was Reeve from 1900 to 1902, when he was elected to the Ontario legislature. Although it was believed at the time that Ferguson had adopted an anti-French language stance in order to gain the support of the extreme Orange element, and that he was not a “true believer”in that sense, he constantly linked the dangers of bilingual education in Canada to threats to its British character.

“This is a British country and we must maintain it as such if we are to maintain the high destiny that Providence intended for Canada…If Ontario can demonstrate that the bilingual system is unnecessary, she has won a great victory for British citizenship”. The Premier’s apology in the Legislature underlines the fact that Ontario has prospered without feeling the need to limit or ignore its multicultural character.  The Premier ended her speech by saying:

“Today, we acknowledge that Ontario would not be the beacon of pluralism and diversity we are so proud of if not for the courage and tenacity of our Francophone brothers and sisters. And with this, the achievements of Franco-Ontarians give us great hope that our society will continue to acknowledge the truth about our past and the hard won victories, because that is how we can continue to build equality, expand opportunity, and give every community the respect, recognition and resources that we all deserve.” G. Howard Ferguson was not mentioned.

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