December 1, 2018 marked an important date for francophones across the province of Ontario. It was a day on which thousands of Franco-Ontarians stood in unison to deliver a message to the premier of Ontario. They were protesting the government’s decision to eliminate the independent Office of the French Language Services Commissioner, and the further announcement that plans for Ontario’s long-awaited first officially Francophone university were being shelved. December 1 was also an important day for me personally. It will be forever etched in my mind as the day I took my first steps in the direction of political activism.
This year, OSSTF/FEESO is commemorating a century of defending the rights of education workers, and our history shows that inclusiveness is one of the hallmarks of the Federation.
Over the course of those 100 years, OSSTF/FEESO has adjusted its sails many times to maintain a culture of progressive thinking that embraces the organization’s diverse membership. Federation leaders and members continually defend the rights of equity-seeking groups, including persons of colour, persons with disabilities, as well as Indigenous, Francophone and LGBTQ members. As a Franco-Ontarian, who has been educated in French and who continues to work in the francophone education system, I empathize with the many challenges faced by minority groups and can certainly appreciate OSSTF/FEESO’s efforts to level the playing field for all equity seeking bodies.
Even though I hold principles of equity in high regard, the notion of taking to the streets to demonstrate for just causes simply wasn’t in my DNA. I just did not view myself as a picket line or political rally kind of person, until the affronts proposed by Premier Ford against the Franco-Ontarian community really got me fired up. In the face of those affronts, I felt compelled to lend my voice to the thousands of other francophone voices across Ontario and Canada who chose to stand united to send a strong message to the Premier.
On December 1 2018, I joined OSSTF/FEESO members, families, and various other union partisans to gather outside Doug Ford’s Etobicoke office. On this day, it did not matter if it was your first rally or your 50th. It mattered not if you spoke English or French, nor was cultural identity, age or gender a determining factor in every person’s ability to demonstrate conviction and passion through a willingness to stand up be heard when rights are being taken away.
Donning the signature green and white colours of the Ontario francophone flag, some demonstrators brandished signs imploring the Premier to revisit Canada’s history. This was not the first time Franco-Ontarians have felt duty-bound to take on the government and defend the right to educate their children in their own language.
As I stood surrounded by hundreds of fellow Franco-Ontarians, I recalled the lessons of my youth and felt a profound connection to the story of some very courageous francophone educators who took their political activism to the extreme. In 1912, Regulation 17 was passed making it illegal to teach or even speak French in Ontario schools. Of course, the entire Franco-Ontarian community rose against this provincial law banning French instruction, and everywhere in the province female teachers continued to teach in French. A momentous standoff, known as the Battle of the Hatpins, ensued in 1916 when mothers and educators rallied against Regulation 17 in an effort to reclaim the right to teach in French. The impasse took place in the city of Ottawa where teachers Diane and Béatrice Desloges, accompanied by 19 mothers, commandeered their school. As the Desloges sisters taught in French at the risk of losing their salary and teaching certificates, the other women stood guard at the doors of the Guigues school armed with their imposing hatpins. After weeks of resistance, the government sent 30 police officers armed with batons to force out the women and children. The police were met with cast iron pans and rolling pins.
The actions of those audacious women inspired others to continue the battle, including Florence Quesnel in Green Valley, Jeanne Lajoie in Pembroke and Anne-Marie Lemelin from my home town of Welland. On February 3, 1916, the resistance escalated when 122 teachers went on strike and forced the closure of 17 schools, marking the start of a battle that lasted 11 more years. Regulation 17 was finally repealed in 1927.
When reflecting on the December 1 rally, parallels between this fight and the struggles of the past are not lost on me; it’s not hard to see why my Francophone compatriots would react so fiercely to the slights handed down by our current Premier. Our ancestors had fought courageously to regain the right to educate their children in French and, come hell or high water, their progeny would do the same.
Our union leaders have warned that troublesome days may be ahead with the Ford government at the helm. Political activism may, out of necessity, play an important role over the next three years. If and when our working conditions come under attack, it will be imperative that OSSTF/FEESO members stand united, just as our predecessors did in 1997 in response to the draconian measures of then-premier Mike Harris, and through countless other battles in our history.
I dare not surmise if or how the current premier might next insult the integrity of the proud francophone people of this province, but what I can say with assurance about those who attended the rallies in early December is that Franco-Ontarian people have fiery convictions that have been cultivated over generations. They will defend their culture, they will conserve their language and they will fight for their rights. And just as I am proud to call myself a Franco-Ontarian, I am equally appreciative to be a member of OSSTF/FEESO. For one hundred years, the dedication with which the Federation has defended the rights of its members has equalled the passion and resolve manifested by my francophone comrades, past and present, who have fought for, and who continue to defend, the interests of their kin. When it becomes necessary to defend our working conditions and fight for the quality of public education in Ontario, we must all stand up for each other to protect what we have gained and safeguard the future of our children.