Flag bearer for the French language
By Sophie Coupal
Mariette Carrier-Fraser is quick-witted and clear-headed, with a ready laugh. Described as one of the “faces of French-language education in Ontario,” she gives the immediate impression of a woman of accomplishment.
And that’s not surprising. A Prix de la francophonie de l’Ontario in 2015, Radio-Canada/Le Droit person of the year for 2015, the Order of Ottawa, the Ordre de la Pléiade, an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa, an honorary degree from Collège Boréal — this great Franco-Ontarian seems to be constantly showered with honours.
“It’s not that I’m good — it’s that I’m nice,” she jokes, hiding her embarrassment at all this recognition.
“Nice”? For sure. Just nice? Not likely, when you consider that she was once told by a government minister who wanted to hire her that “It’s safer to have you on the inside than on the outside.”
Mariette Carrier-Fraser’s reputation as a fighter is nothing new.
A graduate of the University’s École normale (’61), she taught for a few years before starting to move up the ladder, first in the school system — she was the founding principal of a French-language school in Cambridge — and later, in the Ministry of Education.
At the time, in southwest Ontario, there was much to be done in terms of French-language education: fighting to establish schools, putting structures in place, ending isolation and, especially, getting English-language majority communities to better take into account the needs of Franco-Ontarians. With outsized energy, Mariette Fraser-Carrier devoted herself to laying the necessary groundwork.
And then one day she was offered the position of assistant deputy minister of French-language education. More groundwork ahead.
“I said to myself: ‘What exactly does an assistant deputy minister do?’ I had no idea. So I defined my own position,” she recalls.
When she took the position in 1983, she had neither a job description nor a team, other than an education officer and an administrative assistant.
But when she retired from the public service, in 1997, it was as the head of a division of more than 2,000 people. The first French-language community college in Northern Ontario, Collège Boréal, had been founded, and the law creating French-language school boards, which she had helped bring forward, had been passed. After a 25-year battle, Franco-Ontarians finally controlled their schools.
While she admits that sometimes “things don’t move fast enough,” Mariette Carrier-Fraser believes in a “step by step” approach.
“Radical change doesn’t work. Gradual change does. You have to be persistent. Francophones have known this all along. Not always patient, but persistent,” she says, with a twinkle in her voice.
When her “battles” are brought up, she gently rejects the warrior metaphor, preferring instead to “speak up.”
“As a minority, Franco-Ontarians will always need to continually speak up to make sure they don’t forget we exist. It’s not because of any bad faith. We shouldn’t think that the anglophones are against us or are trying to hurt us, quite the opposite.”
Carrier-Fraser herself seems unstoppable. Since her retirement, she has remained very involved in the Franco-Ontarian community, as president of the Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario and the Centre canadien de leadership en évaluation.
While Carrier-Fraser is now more focused on access to French-language health services (she sits on several boards and committees), she continues to feel strongly about education. And if that weren’t enough, one of her daughters, who is a school principal, and her granddaughter, who is about to begin studies in education, share her passion, as well.
“Our schools are essential to maintaining our culture and language,” she says. “They need to be strong, to be a presence in their community. Youth need to have positive experiences there so they too can be proud to preserve their language.”
The groundwork is laid now, but upkeep is needed. Fortunately, with all the people that Mariette Carrier-Fraser has touched, persuaded and influenced in her career, that looks to be taken care of.
Mariette Carrier-Fraser worked for more than 36 years in the Ontario education system, including as assistant deputy minister of French-language education. Photo: Bonnie Findley