Quebec premier caught between language and business with Ontario's cuts to French

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier Francois Legault travelled to Ontario Monday to talk business with Premier Doug Ford but was instead forced to take on another role — lead defender of the French language in North America.

After the Ford government last week announced budget cuts affecting Ontario's 600,000 francophones, Legault was left walking a fine line between strengthening economic ties with his neighbour and standing up for the rights of a French-speaking minority.

"Listen, clearly the fate of francophones in Canada is concerning to francophones in Quebec," Legault told reporters after meeting Ford at the provincial legislature. "It is important to remember where we come from, to remember how this country was formed. So it's only normal that there is a pretty strong reaction."

Since Ontario's decision to cancel plans for a francophone university and eliminate the office of the French language services commissioner, Quebec’s political class and media pundits have seized on it as evidence of a lack of commitment to French speakers outside Quebec.

Legault said he asked Ford to reconsider during their closed-door meeting. "Of course, he disagreed," Legault said.

University of Ottawa law professor Benoit Pelletier, a former Quebec minister of intergovernmental affairs, said any perceived attack on French — anywhere in the country — is seen as a threat to Quebecers' identity.

"The influence of the French language passes through the presence of French across the country," Pelletier said, adding that there is a "natural solidarity" among francophones.

Francophones — including those in Quebec — are a minority within Canada, and they want to see French flourish, he said.

If Legault is seen as indifferent to the fate of francophones outside Quebec, he risks paying a political price  — especially after campaigning on a promise to be a strong defender of the French language.

Veronique Hivon, opposition critic on Canada-Quebec relations for the Parti Quebecois, said Legault needs to go further than simply asking Ford to reverse his funding cuts.

"There are things that are fundamental when you are Quebec premier," Hivon added. "Speaking loudly and strongly about the French fact ... is one of them."

She urged the premier to meet Franco-Ontarian groups planning to sue the Ontario government over its decision to let them know Quebec is on their side.

"He needs to say that Quebec is open to all other means to support them in this fight," she said.

Legault said Ford is convinced his government can continue to serve Franco-Ontarians after the French language services commissioner role is rolled into the ombudsman's office. Ford also said the province doesn't have the money to open a francophone university.

"It didn't satisfy me," Legault said on Ford's arguments, "but that's what he told me."

Legault's tone suggested he felt he was limited in his capacity to persuade the Ontario premier to change course.

"I provided all the arguments I could," Legault said.

Legault was visibly more comfortable answering questions about business. He said he and Ford decided their economy ministers would meet twice a year in order to increase trade between the two provinces.

The Quebec premier also said he made a pitch to Ford about the economic advantages of buying more hydro power from his province.

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press