Ontario says it has come up with half of the funding required to build the province’s first French-language university.
The Progressive Conservatives are now asking Ottawa to contribute the other half of the $126 million needed for the project, which they say will take eight years to complete.
The request was laid out in a proposal the Tory government sent to Ottawa on Thursday.
In a joint statement, Ross Romano, the minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, and Caroline Mulroney, the minister of Transportation and the minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs, laid out the reasons for the government’s change of heart and said it is now up the federal government to pony up its share of the money.
“Our government recognizes the exceptional contribution of the Francophone community to the province’s social, cultural and economic development,” they said. “We also recognize the importance of a university governed by — and for — francophones in Ontario.”
Strictly speaking, the proposed school would not be the first to offer French-language university education in Ontario. Universite de Hearst is a post-secondary institution with campuses in Hearst, Timmins and Kapuskasing. It is a federated school of Laurentian University in Sudbury and, for now, is the only exclusively francophone university-level institution in the province.
Laurentian, meanwhile, offers classes in French and English.
The initial cost for the university was estimated at $83 million when the plans were first announced by the previous Liberal government in 2017. The former Wynne government had planned to build the university in southwestern Ontario. Ontario is home to 600,000 francophones.
The province and the federal government have been in talks for weeks to secure a potential funding agreement to build the school.
The Tories scrapped the project in November as part of their effort to balance the books, a move that sparked outrage and protests amongst Franco-Ontarians.
Guy Bourgouin, MPP for Mushkegowuk-James Bay and NDP critic for Francophone Affairs, said in a release the Ford government has still failed to guarantee funding for the university, which he said he wants confirmed immediately.
“I am pleased to hear that the two levels of government have gone from cancelling funding for the Francophone university, to making statements about saving it,” he said. “This movement is certainly the result of the constant work of Franco-Ontarians who have put pressure on the Ford government since it scrapped the project last November.” said
Bourgouin added: “They’re not fooling anyone; it’s no coincidence that Doug Ford and Trudeau’s Liberals are in a hurry to make an agreement ahead of the federal election. We cannot let any level of government get away with more empty promises and then abandon francophones after the election.”
The MPP for Mushkegowuk-James Bay called for a funding guarantee before the federal election, which is Oct. 21.
“The real work begins now and I am sure that Franco-Ontarians will continue to assert their constitutional right to have a French-language post-secondary education system. New Democrats remain committed to working with the francophone community to ensure the future of the French-language university,” Bourgouin said.
According to the statement from Romano and Mulroney, the province is “continuing to negotiate with the federal government and the university on costing and planning,” and this week welcomed a memorandum of understanding from Ottawa. “We are keen to conclude a joint funding agreement to implement the Universite de l’Ontario francais,” they stated.
In a letter to Melanie Joly, the federal minister of tourism, official languages and la Francophonie, Romano wrote “Ontario has secured the necessary approvals for its share of the project, (and) is ready to make a financial commitment.”
Last week, Joly proposed a formal agreement to build the school and Ontario followed up with its own pitch Thursday.
“We’re still studying what we received this morning and we’ll have an answer shortly,” Joly’s spokesman Jeremy Ghio said.
But the two documents, which have been obtained by The Canadian Press, have several differences, which underscore the apparent divide between the two governments.
In its proposal, Ottawa asks the province to begin funding negotiations once it receives “detailed information regarding the relevant infrastructure needs, clear programming and implementation timelines and projections, with related costing to the activities.”
Ontario’s amendments contain language that acknowledge both parties must perform a “due diligence process” addressing those issues.
Ottawa also asks the province to agree to pay back the federal contribution to the university should Ontario “not be in a position to provide funding within the expected time frame.”
The province’s amendments remove that clause.
Mulroney said Ontario’s amendments are in line with the federal funding proposal.
“We sent the agreement back with some modifications but I’m convinced the federal government, which already indicated its interest in reaching a deal … will sign, I hope,” she said.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner, meanwhile, said the government reversal just adds to the growing list of Premier Doug Ford’s flip-flops.
“The premier waited close to a year to reverse this cut,” Schreiner said. “If he actually believed in this initiative, he would have done so in the first place, when Franco-Ontarians were speaking out en masse.”
— with files from Canadian Press