It is a near-universal truth that Franco-Canadians of all accents enjoy the sport of a robust political debate. So the excitement was palpable in 2015, the last time we tuned into a French-language federal election leaders’ debate, expecting an evening of barbed exchanges by leaders vying for our vote.

Yet much to the disappointment of the 2.6 million francophones outside Quebec, we quickly found ourselves excluded from Canada’s electoral conversation when the debate failed to address minority linguistic rights. For francophones in Ontario, who happened to be marking the Day of Franco-Ontarians, the insult was particularly grievous. Franco-Canadians rallied on Twitter, made noise, and trended with #NousComptons (“We Count” in English) that night.

But only a few weeks from the 2019 French-language leaders’ debate, Franco-Canadians have reason to be optimistic about our political future.

And it all started with a flippant remark.

Scorched earth to solidarity

From the cultural pulpit of Radio-Canada’s Tout le monde en parle in October 2018, Quebec journalist Denise Bombardier wrongly claimed that francophones outside Quebec everywhere in Canada have all but disappeared. Franco-Canadians immediately clapped back with a petition that demanded Tout le monde en parle expand its borders beyond Quebec.

A few weeks later, the Doug Ford Conservative government cancelled plans for the Université de l’Ontario français (French University of Ontario), the dream of generations of Franco-Ontarians, and withdrew funding from the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner, the body that protects our linguistic rights.

Our future is in the multiplicity of our accents, whether the vibrant Cameroonian intonations of a Torontonian like Siakam, the plucky inventiveness of Acadian chiac, the urbane inflections of a born-Montréalaise with generational roots in Lebanon, or in the spirit of Michif’s hopeful union of Indigenous languages and European tongues, including French.

In a matter of weeks, ambassadors of both of Canada’s “two solitudes” had eclipsed generations of hard-won linguistic rights and cultural survival in Ontario and elsewhere across Canada.

But from the ashes of Conservative Ontario’s scorched earth cuts to francophones would re-emerge a national conversation, one that could advance not only the linguistic cause of Franco-Ontarians but that of Franco-Canadians of all roots and accents.

Following the well-beaten path traced by our grandparents, Franco-Ontarians mobilized in the face of Ford’s cuts. Fourteen thousand of us protested for our community’s future.

We watched in awe as francophones and francophiles, including our Québécois cousins, joined us in our outrage, waving the emerald green trillium and snowy white fleur-de-lys of the Franco-Ontarian flag at protests in cities across the nation, raising it in solidarity to civic buildings in Acadia, Saint-Boniface, Quebec City, and elsewhere.

In the months that followed, Franco-Ontarians were everywhere. We were invited to headline Tout le monde en parle. We made the pages of the New York Times and Le Monde. Denise Bombardier herself turned up in Ontario and elsewhere in French Canada, documenting the survival of French beyond Quebec’s borders.

Then, the Toronto Raptors’ Pascal Siakam made French a global affair. The Cameroon-born athlete, excitedly championed as Franco-Ontarian by the community, good-naturedly asked for French questions during the team’s press conferences, making French an unofficial language of the NBA playoffs.

Franco-Canadians must move beyond our role as a historical and founding nation of Canada and make political demands that represent the communities we are becoming.

Finally, in an unexpected gesture of fraternity, 150 Franco-Ontarians were invited to open the Fête Nationale parade in Montreal, which celebrates Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day and is widely celebrated by all North American francophones.

It was a hopeful reversal of historical events grounded in the Estates General of French Canada of 1967, which spelled the end of linguistic unity in francophone Canada, pitting Quebec against the rest of French-speaking Canada on the national landscape.

The Franco-Ontarian crisis, however, has prompted fresh calls for a new Estates General, renewing optimism that francophone Canada might again present itself as a united front on the national scene.

This solidarity is as historical as it is critical to the survival of French in Canada, where communities in New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Alberta and elsewhere are fighting for their linguistic rights. For new Franco-Canadians, particularly those in minority linguistic settings, who face the broken promise of Canada’s bilingualism and immigration policies, French-language services are particularly urgent.

La lutte continue

United around linguistic rights, Franco-Canadians wield significant electoral power and policy influence in the upcoming election. The francophone vote matters. This much is evident in the Ford government’s pre-electoral about-face on the future of the Franco-Ontarian university, a move Conservatives undoubtedly hope will improve Andrew Scheer’s fortunes in francophone Canada.

But with this political clout, Franco-Canadians must move beyond our role as a historical and founding nation of Canada and make political demands that represent the communities we are becoming, particularly in Ontario: multicultural, pluralist, and, importantly, speaking with a multitude of francophone accents. Our future is in the multiplicity of our accents, whether the vibrant Cameroonian intonations of a Torontonian like Siakam, the plucky inventiveness of Acadian chiac, the urbane inflections of a born-Montréalaise with generational roots in Lebanon, or in the spirit of Michif’s hopeful union of Indigenous languages and European tongues, including French.

For French-speaking Canada, these elections must be about bilingualism. We must demand both English and French federal leaders’ debates.

For French-speaking Canada, these elections must be about bilingualism. We must demand both English-and French-language federal leaders’ debates with lines of questioning that directly address minority linguistic rights across the country.

In tribute to our history and to the diversity of our nation’s Francophonie, these debates must further address new and entrenched solitudes in Canada and focus on the broken promise of multiculturalism, the failures of immigrant services, racism and exclusion in all its forms, and the urgency of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Today, as French Ontario marks the Day of Franco-Ontarians, celebrates our restored university, and contemplates our federal vote, la lutte continue. Yet from the failure of Ontario’s Conservative agenda has re-emerged solidarity among Canada’s Francophonie, a movement that could dismantle solitudes amid a harmonious cacophony of accents. That vision, if we can embrace it as a collective, will move francophone Canada into our political future. And just maybe influence the outcome of these coming elections.

Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is a Franco-Ontarian from Sudbury, Ontario. She lives in Toronto.