The Ontario schools question was the first major schools issue to focus on language rather than religion. In Ontario, French or French-language education remained a contentious issue for nearly a century, from 1890 to 1980, with English-speaking Catholics and Protestants aligned against French-speaking Catholics.

The Upper Canada School Act (1797) and Adolphus Egerton Ryerson’s School Act (1846) gave French equal status with English, German and Gaelic. In 1885, Minister of Education George Ross introduced new regulations requiring schools to provide English instruction two hours daily in the first four years of elementary school and four hours daily in the final four years. These regulations did not alleviate the anti-French sentiment in Ontario.

During the 1886 election, the Toronto daily newspaper The Mail wrote that schools in Prescott and Russell (East Ontario) were “the nurseries not merely of an alien tongue but of alien customs, of alien sentiments, and […] a wholly alien people.” The historian Robert Choquette said that “a growing number of English Protestant Ontarians see French and Catholic as synonyms of ignorant, backward, and foreign.”

In 1910, the growing number of Franco-Ontarians organized the Association canadienne-française d’éducation de l’Ontario (ACFÉO) to protect and promote the French language. They were opposed by the Orange Order, which demanded English-only education, and by Irish Catholics, led by Bishop Michael Francis Fallon of London, Ontario.

Regulation 17

A commission headed by Francis Walter Merchant, the province's chief school inspector, concluded that the quality of education and of English instruction in bilingual schools was inadequate. The commission recommended better teacher training and the flexible introduction of English as the main language of instruction. The government, responding more to political than to educational imperatives, decided instead to focus on restricting the use of French.

In 1912, Ontario Premier James Pliny Whitney’s Conservative government issued Regulation 17, which limited the use of French as the language of instruction and communication to the first two years of elementary school. Regulation 17 was amended in 1913 to permit French as a subject of study for one hour per day.

Escalation to National Conflict

During the First World War the Ontario schools question escalated to a national conflict, contributing to the tensions surrounding the 1917 conscription crisis and further alienating French Canadians in Québec and Ontario from Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Conservative government. At the federal level, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council decided that Regulation 17 was constitutional because denominational school guarantees did not include language. However, it ruled that the commission appointed by the government to enforce its policy in Ottawa was unconstitutional.A political compromise came after war tensions had faded away. Senator Belcourt, spokesperson for the ACFÉO, and the Unity League of Ontario, representing influential English-speaking Ontarians, worked for conciliation. Another commission composed of F. W. Merchant, Judge J. H. Scott (an Orangeman) and Louis Coté (a francophone lawyer) agreed that Regulation 17 was a failure and that it perpetuated inferior schooling.

Unable to enforce Regulation 17 despite being one of its leading proponents, Premier Howard Ferguson scrapped it in 1927 and introduced a new policy promoting improved bilingual instruction. French was given legal status in schools, and the University of Ottawa Normal School (a teachers’ college) was officially recognized. However, Regulation 17 remained on the statute book until 1944, when the Ontario regulations were revised.

Hope Commission

In 1945, the Royal Commission on Education in Ontario (Hope Commission), created by George Drew’s Conservative government, revived the debate on French-language schools. It tabled a report in 1950 recommending that French-language instruction be limited to the first six years of elementary school and that the University of Ottawa Normal School be closed. In 1951, the ACFÉO challenged nearly all of the Hope report recommendations, since they would have the effect of limiting French-language instruction in Franco-Ontarian schools. Premier Leslie Frost promptly responded that his government did not stand behind the Hope Commission, and the report’s main recommendations were not implemented.

Between 1950 and 1960, Ontario had 45 private French-language secondary schools, run by approximately 15 religious communities as well as secular priests in Ottawa and Hearst. These teaching communities were the only ones with the staff and financial means to support secondary schools. However, by the early 1960s, French-language private schools were finding it increasingly difficult to compete with public secondary schools, and many of them closed.

The Hall-Dennis Commission and Bériault Committee

In March 1967, the ACFÉO submitted a brief asking for a system that would bring together public and private Franco-Ontarian secondary schools. On 24 November 1967, Premier John Robarts responded by creating the Committee on French-Language Schools in Ontario, chaired by Roland Bériault.

In 1968, the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario (Hall-Dennis Commission) published the first three years of research results in a report called Living and Learning. Justice Emmett Hall (Ottawa) and educator Lloyd Dennis (Toronto) recommended that the Ministry of Education develop programs for students studying primarily in French and learning English as a second language.

The Bériault Report, also published in 1968, was strongly influenced by Living and Learning and laid the foundation for a full-fledged French-language school system in Ontario encompassing both primary and secondary education.

That same year, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed the Schools Administration Act (Bill 140) and the Secondary Schools and Boards Act (Bill 141), providing for the creation of French-language secondary schools. In 1969, the first network was formed with a core of 6 previously “bilingual” public secondary schools and 16 formerly private Franco-Ontarian secondary schools.

Sturgeon Falls School Crisis (1971)

Bills 140 and 141 did not entirely alleviate language tensions. In at least two places — Sturgeon Falls and Penetanguishene — providing French-speaking students with separate schools to protect their culture stirred up controversy.

In 1970, Sturgeon Falls was a small town with an economy that was based on the pulp and paper industry and a population that was 80 per cent French-speaking. The Nipissing School Board was repeatedly asked to make the bilingual Sturgeon Falls Secondary School exclusively French-speaking, as 1,200 of its 1,600 students were francophone.

The Nipissing School Board maintained the status quo, saying that the estimated cost of building a new school for the 400 English-speaking students was too high. In September 1971, with the support of their families, French-speaking students boycotted classes and prevented others from registering. On 7 September, with the full support of the Franco-Ontarian associations, they formed picket lines and attempted to prevent teachers and English-speaking students from entering the school. In late September 1971, accompanied by adults, 200 French-speaking students staged a sit-in at the secondary school.

Faced with this turn of events and rising tensions, the Bill Davis government took action. Midway through the election campaign, Minister of Education Robert Welch created the Ministerial Commission on French Language Secondary Education, headed by Thomas H. B. Symons of Trent University in Peterborough. In December, the Commission published a preliminary report recommending the creation of a French-language secondary school in Sturgeon Falls. After meeting with Symons, the Nipissing School Board agreed. The bilingual school became Franco-Cité, and the English-speaking Northern Secondary School opened in 1976.

Penetanguishene School Crisis (1979–1980)

Despite the actions of Symons, Welch and Davis, other school crises erupted. In Cornwall, Franco-Ontarian students went on strike in support of demands that the Saint-Laurent Secondary School become exclusively French-speaking. They succeeded, and the new school was named La Citadelle. Other minor school crises occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, notably in Geraldton/Longlac, Burlington, Kirkland Lake and Windsor. A major crisis broke out in Penetanguishene during the Québec sovereignty referendum (see Québec Referendum in 1980), and the so-called “Penetang school crisis” drew national attention.

Located on the southeaster shore of Georgian Bay, Penetanguishene had a population of approximately 6,000 in the late 1970s, of whom over 80 per cent were of francophone origin and 40 per cent had French as their mother tongue. Since the Penetanguishene Secondary School was a bilingual institution with an English-speaking culture and did not offer full study programs in French, the French Language Advisory Committeeof the Simcoe School Board asked that a separate school be built. The Board refused the request, along with others submitted by the Committee. With support from the Franco-Ontarian community, Penetanguishene francophones opened a resistance school in 1979.

Penetanguishene therefore became a symbol for the fight to develop Franco-Ontarian culture. The community received support from the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and the Commissioner of Official Languages. On 12 October 1979, Minister of Education Bette Stephenson refused the request from francophone parents to build a French-language secondary school, stating that it was a decision for the school board to make.

Debate moved to the courts, which ruled in favour of the Penetanguishene Franco-Ontarians. Bill Davis’ Conservative government promised to cover 95 per cent of the cost of building a French-language secondary school. It opened in 1982, the year that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force, and was named École secondaire Le Caron in honour of Friar Joseph Le Caron, who said the first mass in Ontario on 12 August 1615.

School Management

The schools question was not yet resolved. From 1984 to 1993, a number of court cases tested section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1984, the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled that Franco-Ontarians were entitled to play a greater role in managing their schools. In 1989, two French-language school boards were created: one in Toronto and one in Ottawa. However, Franco-Ontarians were not given full control over the management of their schools until Mike Harris’ Conservative government passed Bill 104 in 1997. Ontario now has eight French-language Catholic school boards and four French-language public school boards.

Formal Apology for Regulation 17

On 22 February 2016, Premier Kathleen Wynne issued an official apology, on behalf of the Government of Ontario, to Franco-Ontarians for the adoption of Regulation 17 and its harmful impact on their communities. A motion requesting the apology had been put forward by Sudbury MP Glenn Thibeault in December 2015.