By Sébastien Grammond
The Ontario government recently announced that the University of Ottawa would be designated under the French Language Services Act. In reality, the University already offers the vast majority of its programs in French, but the designation means that this right is now enshrined in law.
Concretely, this means that any student enrolled in an undergraduate program covered by the designation will be able to complete their program by taking only courses in French, if they so wish. All services offered to the student population must be provided in French. In most faculties, any new undergraduate programs must be provided in French.
Since 1965, when the University became a public institution with the adoption of the University of Ottawa Act, uOttawa has had a mission to “preserve and develop the French culture in Ontario”. Support for the Francophonie and bilingualism is one of the four pillars of the University’s strategic plan. With this designation, the University formally reaffirms its commitment to the Francophone community.
With a critical mass of over 13,000 students, the University of Ottawa is by far the largest Francophone university in Ontario. And thanks to its location in the heart of Canada’s capital, at the crossroads of two major language communities, the University of Ottawa is also the largest bilingual (French-English) university in the world. Designation guarantees the continuation of its Francophone nature.
The designation of an institution such as ours required a great deal of creativity. When the French Language Services Act was adopted in 1986, legislators had not foreseen all the ramifications of its application to a complex, decentralized and bilingual institution such as the University of Ottawa. Various interpretations of this law were proposed over the years.
Before agreeing to the designation, the University wanted to ensure that it could comply with the law while still maintaining enough flexibility to truly fulfill its mission. The need to maintain academic freedom, to ensure proper management, and to preserve the dynamic nature of the programs and courses led to the creation of a detailed regulation that defines the exact scope of the designation.
In many respects, the solutions adopted were innovative and unprecedented, and as such, they required extensive review. The university community was consulted several times on these provisions. The time invested in this process paid off: we achieved consensus and buy-in from all stakeholders for a solution that was adopted by the University’s Board of Governors and approved by the Ontario government.
This announcement is not the last word on the designation of the University of Ottawa, which will take effect on January 1, 2016. The designation will need to be applied on a daily basis to the programs and services at the University, which has promised to review the scope of the designation once it has acquired enough experience in its application.
Hence, in three years’ time, we could be studying the possibility of designating graduate studies or other programs or services that are not currently covered by the designation. For the University of Ottawa, this designation is not a ceiling, but rather a minimum standard. The University intends to pursue the development of courses and programs in French, regardless of whether they are covered by the designation.
The author is a professor in the Faculty of Law, Civil Law Section. He coordinated the University’s efforts to obtain the designation.