The old red-brick post office in Penetanguishene is an unlikely spot to become a national battleground. But though the town nestles on the sandy shores of Georgian Bay in the heart of anglo Ontario, 100 miles north of Toronto, its residents are mostly
French—at least by descent. French
I Jesuits became martyrs there in the
0 late 1640s. Two hundred years later the
1 first Quebec settlers arrived, complete with priests and then teachers to fill the forêt vierge. Others followed over the years and now the telephone book is filled with Brunelles, Dorions, Robillards. Perhaps 75 per cent of the town’s population of 5,400 is of French-Canadian ancestry, yet they are sharply at odds with each other and some of their anglo neighbors over what’s going on in the old post office. That’s where 55 teenagers are receiving their education entirely in French, defying—with the approval of their parents—with the approval of their parents—the wishes of the regional Simcoe County board of education and the Progressive Conservative government of Premier William Davis that they attend a mixed-language secondary school.
Some Ontario newspapers have taken a spotty interest in the dispute, but for the French-Canadian media, the school—L’Ecole Secondaire de la Huronie—has become a headline-matter. In Ottawa’s Le Droit, Montreal’s La Presse and the influential Le Devoir coverage has been intense. Scathing editorials and cartoons have attacked Davis for his handling of the dispute and Ontario’s failure to provide a separate tax-supported high school in
French. Quebec Premier René Lévesque has cited it as another example of benign neglect of francophone minorities outside his borders. Earlier this year Lévesque spoke in Toronto, wearing a lapel button that simply read: PENETANG. That didn’t warm the heart of Davis, who sees himself as a mediator in the national unity debate.
Headquarters for the controversy is a cluster of cramped offices where francophone students meet with their tutors in the former post office, on loan from the federal government for use as a French cultural centre. The centre’s coordinator, Basile Dorion, 31, fields questions between phone calls from Ottawa, Toronto and across Ontario. He’s on loan to the school as administrator and chief spokesman. He blames Davis and Education Minister Bette Stephenson for the growing bitterness, accusing the government of stalling and refusing to honor its commitments to French-language education.
Downstairs, a school bell rings and a jukebox starts up. It’s lunchtime, and students are taking a break from their books and correspondence courses. Nicole Marchand, 16, says there’s no comparison between the atmosphere she’s now in and the one she experienced for two years at the large regional high school a few blocks away. She says she chose the all-French school for three reasons. “I wanted to conserve my French. I wanted to help out the francophones of Ontario so they wouldn’t always have to fight for what is theirs lawfully. And I wanted a change, because there really was no spirit at Penetanguishene Secondary School.”
Five subjects are taught in French now at PSS —français, history, geogra-
phy, math and science. It was the battle to get those five subjects introduced, one at a time over a period of almost a decade, that made people like Dorion and Nicole Marchand decide that they needed their own “separate and distinct” school on its own property. Otherwise, their language would be lost, they say, at an institution where English dominates the corridors.
There have been earlier tussles over linguistic education rights in Penetanguishene, but this latest battle started with the creation of the Simcoe County board of education in 1969. It’s an amalgamation of small rural and community boards whose trustees and their elec-
tors are overwhelmingly English, and to them the taxpayers of Penetanguishene are a small minority—if a loud one. The board merged several district schools within Penetanguishene Secondary School, including a French high school at nearby Lafontaine, but there are three French elementary schools in the area whose 950 students, say some parents and teachers, will wind up deficient in both official languages if they must graduate to PSS.
Gilles Maurice, a furniture store operator and a “trustee” of the little post office school, with three children enrolled, says the public board has its eye on the anglo voters, and the province “doesn’t want to open the doors to other minorities—English or French. People should respect our rights. I can understand people don’t want their taxes to go up, but we’re simply asking for a school for students who want it and not for those who don’t. I’ve seen a fantastic difference in my kids since they’ve been there. There’s more pride in their language, their heritage.”
More than three years of negotiations have led only to stalemate. A 1978 study of attitudes, needs and costs proved inconclusive. Last October Education Minister Stephenson, citing costs, proposed an annex to the existing PSS, a “school within a school” with its own administration and teaching staff. That met with jeers from parents and students alike who clamored that it was less than they had already turned down. Six francophone members of the county’s French Language Advisory Committee promptly quit. A group calling itself Concerned Citizens for Bilingual Unity was writing letters to newspapers opposing a new school because francophones were asking for “too much.” Penetanguishene town council, although many of its councillors are of French heritage, began talking about using a zoning bylaw to force the school out of the old post office. Recently the dispute turned ugly when two people— one a board member and the other a founder of the citizens’ committee opposed to the school—received anonymous death threats by telephone. Three days later, the Simcoe board of education voted to cut off all discussion of a French school with anyone except ministry officials and ruled that “the entire matter ... be referred to the government of Ontario.”
That now seems the last hope for everybody. The latest word on the matter comes from ministry spokesman Neal Emery who says the whole question has ,top priority at Queen’s Park. As one resident, himself of French descent, said I last week: “I don’t think we need the school. But I wish to hell they’d resolve the issue once and for all, one way or the
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