History

Ever since the first French settler set foot on Ontario soil in 1610, nearly 400 years ago, the history of the province has been closely connected with that of the French-speaking men and women who developed it, particularly from the 19th century onward.

The Francophone presence in Ontario grew steadily in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with settlements being established initially along the Ottawa River and then towards the interior. During this time, people settled mostly in Eastern (1810-1840) and North-eastern (1880) Ontario, drawn by land bordering rivers (eastern Ontario and Ottawa), the forestry industry (eastern Ontario), mineral exploration (North), or the development of the railway systems (North, West, and South). Settlement in the more northerly regions between Cochrane and Hearst began around 1910, while development in Timiskaming started at the turn of the 20th century.

The 19th century and the beginning of the 20th also saw the establishment of institutions, primarily religious, that supported a Franco-Ontarian elite that had to defend and protect the progress it had made while it continued to look to the future. This population was Francophone and Catholic in a land of Protestant Anglophones. The creation of the Association canadienne-française d'éducation de l'Ontario (ACFÉO) in 1910, forebear of the Association canadienne-française de l'Ontario (ACFO), demonstrated the population's desire to establish its own identity, as did the founding of the newspaper Le Droit in 1913.

The adoption of Regulation 17 (1912-1927), which severely restricted the use of French as a language of instruction in schools in favour of English, and Regulation 18, which threatened the school boards and teachers who opposed Regulation 17 with reprisals, are the most striking examples of the confrontation that long defined relations between Francophone Catholics and Anglophone Protestants in Ontario. Today, French-language school boards are responsible for the education of young Franco-Ontarians, who now also have the opportunity to attend French-language colleges.

The dramatic battle (1997-2002) to save Ottawa's Montfort Hospital from a government-announced closure is the most recent socio-political conflict experienced by Franco-Ontarians. On March 22, 1997, in an act of solidarity, nearly 10,000 Francophones and Francophiles gathered at Ottawa's City Hall to support the SOS Montfort movement, led by Gisèle Lalonde. Twice defeated in court, the government finally conceded an unconditional defeat in February 2002. Today Montfort Hospital is expanding steadily, with the help of major government investments.

The Franco-Ontarian identity is reflected in symbols as well as actions. The Franco-Ontarian flag was unveiled for the first time on September 25, 1975, at the University of Sudbury. The government officially recognized it as the emblem of the Francophone community of Ontario in 2001.

The Monuments de la francophonie have also begun to appear in Ontario over the past few years. The first unveiling took place on September 25, 2006, in Ottawa. There are six similar monuments in the National Capital Region and similar projects have been undertaken elsewhere in French Ontario, specifically in Casselman and Sudbury.

The Franco-Ontarian identity is also reflected in legislation; for example, the adoption of the French Language Services Act (Bill 8), which came into full effect in November 1989, guaranteed that citizens could receive French-language government services in 25 designated regions. The Act was amended in 2007 with the addition of the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner.

The Franco-Ontarian identity is clearly reflected in culture. L'Écho d'un peuple, a theatre production describing the history of Franco-Ontarians in 14 scenes, was presented for the first time in 2003. From 2004 to 2008, more than 100,000 people saw this mega-event on Drouin Farm in La Nation municipality, located in eastern Ontario.

This identity is also recognized in the association community: in 2006, after a lengthy process, Francophone activists in Ontario created a new association, the Assemblée de la francophonie de l'Ontario (AFO), which replaced the Association canadienne-française de l'Ontario (ACFO) and the Direction Entente Canada Communautés Ontario (DECCO).

This vibrant Franco-Ontarian community is not monolithic. Nowadays, it relies to a greater extent on immigration to ensure its prosperity and its future. Franco-Ontarians bear names like Levasseur, Matte, Cantin, Gauthier, Gervais, Lalonde and Roy, but also Diallo, Abdi, Brihmi, Ghaleb, Matulu and Nguyen. There are as many stories to tell as there are individuals and families, who have elected to live in what is for some a land of plenty, for others a promise for the future, and for newcomers a place of hope.