There’s a storied history of fighting for French services in Sturgeon Falls, Ont., but you wouldn’t know it just driving through town.
The tiny West Nipissing community, tucked between Sudbury and North Bay, looks like many other small towns around the province, anchored by one main street lined with fast food restaurants and strip malls. It’s one of the province’s larger francophone communities; 62 percent speak French as a first language.
There’s no obvious mention of the fierce battle that took place here in the early ’70s known as the Sturgeon Falls school crisis. That’s when the town’s francophones fought for a French-speaking high school. Almost five decades later, that battle is drawing parallels to the current one for French services — spurred by the province’s proposed cuts and subsequent partial backtrack.
The PCs have reinstated the French language services commissioner position they planned to scrap and roll into the ombudsman’s office. They have also promised to make the Office of Francophone Affairs a ministry.
But Ontario will not be restoring funds for a French language university they had promised. And that doesn’t sit well with Edgar Gagné, who sees another fight brewing to protect his culture.
He was in his first year teaching at the bilingual high school when the school crisis escalated and he headed the association asking the school board and the province for a French school.
When he finished teaching for the day, he shifted into an organizing role, getting demonstrations and protest fliers ready. Students went on strike, locking out fellow students, teachers and parents.
“We were brought up not to fight against another person’s culture. We were brought up to defend our own … I always say, if francophones don’t stand up for their own rights, the anglophones certainly won’t,” he said.
“It’s not an issue for them. They have never had to fight for their cultural rights.”
‘Watch out, we’re coming’
The Sturgeon Falls fight took years, but francophones eventually got their French high school: École secondaire catholique Franco-Cité. It’s still in operation today.
Back in the ’70s, the province was supportive of francophone issues. It was the local school board in nearby North Bay that didn’t want the French school built.
Gagné says it’s different this time around.
“They’d like us to get in line. The boss speaks and [we] say yes. The boss jumps. We should say how high. Well to hell with the boss. We’re not going to jump,” he said.]