Ford’s gaffe costs him role as kingmaker

Ever since he took office, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has gone out of his way to cast himself in the role of federal kingmaker.

From Day 1, he has made no secret of the fact he is making it a priority to see Justin Trudeau voted out of government next fall.

But as Ford is currently learning at his own expense, the undeniable national influence that attends the role of Ontario premier cuts both ways.

His ambition to play kingmaker in next fall’s federal vote is really the first casualty of his mishandling of the Franco-Ontarian file.

Notwithstanding the premier’s damage-control efforts, the dust is unlikely to settle on the backlash he has engineered when he reneged on his promise to Ontario’s francophone community to pursue the project of a French-language university.

The decision to eliminate the post of commissioner of French-language services — a move devoid of a fiscal rationale as the money saved, if any, amounts to a drop in an ocean of spending — only added insult to injury.

Late Friday, Ford’s office announced it was restoring a full-fledged portfolio for francophone affairs within the cabinet and adding a senior adviser on Franco-Ontarian affairs to the premier’s staff.

But it will take more than the closing of the barn door after the horse has bolted to turn Ford’s status back from liability to his federal cousins to major asset in next fall’s campaign.

In Quebec and other francophone regions of the country, Andrew Scheer’s kinship with the Ontario premier has become a toxic feature of his leadership.

No federal leader can afford to write off the 100 or so ridings where francophone voters determine the electoral outcome without dramatically reducing his hope of leading his party to victory. As large as Ford’s audience may be in Ontario, it cannot make up for the Conservative Party of Canada being written off on account of his actions on the language rights front by voters in almost a third of the country’s ridings.

Nor is looking like the junior partner of a premier — regardless of the size of the province the latter happens to run — conducive to becoming PM.

Scheer can only hope the backlash that has attended Ford’s dealings with Ontario’s francophone community will pre-emptively induce caution in New Brunswick.

Premier Blaine Higgs’s incoming Tories are not considered particularly francophone-friendly and his minority government depends for its survival on a party that is pushing for a reduction in the officially bilingual province’s French-language services.

The Quebec reaction to the Ontario news was as furious as it was swift, for in the era of social media, news travel fast.

For the first time in its 14-year history, Tout le monde en parle, the province’s much-watched television talk show, devoted an entire segment to a political story pertaining to Canada’s francophone diaspora on Sunday.

It notably featured Amanda Simard, the Ontario Tory MPP who has been calling on her government to reverse course. She is becoming a bit of a household name in Quebec.

Her riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell switched from the Liberals to the Tories last June, making it an outlier of sorts among the province’s francophone strongholds. On election night, Simard had assured her constituents they had nothing to fear from a Conservative government.

Over the past decade, Quebec has been re-engaging in the affairs of the federation. In the current Parliament, 68 of its 78 MPs belong to federalist parties. Its incoming CAQ government was elected on a federalist platform. This Quebec backlash is not a byproduct of a particularly vibrant sovereignty movement.

If Quebecers are — as every indicator suggests — putting the option of secession behind them, it is not to see their language increasingly obliterated from the political landscape of the rest of the federation, or the hard-earned gains of French-language minorities eroded.

A thought in closing on the notion that the Franco-Ontarian community will move on sooner, rather than later: Nothing is less certain.

This is not a community that gives up on its dreams easily.

As a rookie journalist working for Radio-Canada in Toronto, I was assigned the Franco-Ontarian beat at a time when local communities routinely had to fight English-language school boards tooth and nail to obtain stand-alone francophone high schools.

On the weekend, someone dug one of my TV reports out of the archives. It dealt with the Franco-Ontarian community’s determination to add a francophone university to its expanding education network. The year that report was broadcast was 1980.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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