The University of Ottawa and the Francophonie, beyond the controversy

Posted on Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Sanni Yaya

By Sanni Yaya, vice-president, International and Francophonie

Over the past few months, the University of Ottawa has found itself, all too unwillingly, in the spotlight following a series of incidents that made headlines. Our institution has a long tradition of multiple and coexisting identities and draws its uniqueness from the importance of the French language, and its cultural diversity, which is rich in contrasts and crisscrossing destinies.

Our inclusive, diverse community welcomes over 50,000 students, professors and employees, thousands of whom are Francophones and Francophiles who enrich us with their dreams, their differences, and their stories. For these thousands of men and women, the University of Ottawa remains a vibrant and convivial environment, a place that empowers personal and professional growth.

Although this aspect of our history is not well known, Francophones have helped shape the University of Ottawa and forge its current identity. The Francophonie is vitally important to us since French language and culture lie at the very heart of our educational mission.

Our institution has the distinction of belonging to two very significant worlds: it is both a major research university and one of the rare bilingual institutions that play a key role in Francophone higher education, both in Canada and internationally. The University continues to be a beacon in this space, attracting thousands of students looking to pursue their studies in their language.

Despite the narrow and unflattering view held by some, the fact is that with 15,000 Francophone students (representing 31% of our student population – 34% if we include Francophiles in the French Immersion stream) and over 369 programs offered fully in French, the University of Ottawa remains a key French research and educational institution in Canada. We are the largest university offering post-secondary studies in French outside of Quebec and the second-largest research-intensive university in Canada among Francophone and bilingual institutions. We actively support postsecondary education in French for minority communities throughout Canada, including in core fields such as law, health, and education.

In addition, the University of Ottawa is the alma mater of thousands of engineers, social workers, physicians, and law professionals who play a central role in ensuring the linguistic vitality of Francophone communities in minority settings. The University also serves as a primary networking point and the foundation for all the other institutions that exercise leadership in Francophone communities, thus bolstering their institutional range.

Our University has always fostered a vision of a Francophonie that is continuously being built through knowledge sharing and development in French within a high quality, stronger, and greater community. The Francophonie can, and must, through the values it upholds, strengthen connections and foster relationships structured around a shared language: French. The Francophonie we believe in is a crossroad to share ideas, a place that is constantly renewing and modernizing itself through its diversity and with the ebb and flow of the transatlantic migrations that deeply structure Francophone space. For instance, we are home to the highest concentration in Canada – in both number and diversity – of research chairs on Francophonie. This makes the University of Ottawa the undisputed leader in research on the Francophonie in Ontario, across the country, and around the world.

The position of Vice-President, International and Francophonie, which I have the honour of holding, was created as part of our commitment to bringing a more sustainable, flexible, and robust approach to achieving our ambitions as a Francophone institution.

Recently, the President tasked me with inviting all members of the University community to take part in an important dialogue on the state of the Francophonie at our University. This exercise, which was conducted transparently and on our own initiative, was an opportunity to listen to and share not only the community members’ concerns, but also their hopes. Our goal was to go beyond the Action Plan for the Francophonie presented in 2019 by taking stock of the situation as perceived by the community and aligning our response accordingly.

While it is undeniable that we have made some progress in addressing Francophone concerns at our institution, the report arising from these consultations paints a picture that is far from what we aspire to. As I have previously publicly stated, the status quo is not an option and the message conveyed during these consultations cannot be denied, diminished, or trivialized. Some members of our University community have expressed concerns about the fragility of the French fact on campus. We must remain alert and aim high: the future of the Francophonie at the University is a collective responsibility, one that we must proudly and firmly shoulder.

These consultations were very productive, frank, and transparent. Rather than being definitive, they bring us to an important crossroads and push us to do more together, and to do better, so that our Francophone communities can thrive. Now more than ever, we intend to draw on these consultations to motivate us to continue our work to tangibly address the many issues raised and to fulfill our educational mission with the same spirit that has driven us since the University was founded.

That is why we immediately took action and have already started new projects. We are developing new, more enforceable policies on bilingualism to further clarify our practices, working on ensuring and encouraging a better balance between the two languages, and implementing new governance and accountability models, including a Francophone lens, in the near future. These measures share a common goal: to promote greater autonomy and vigour in advancing the Francophonie.

I invite all those who wish to see the Francophonie thrive, both on and off campus, to join us as we work together for the future of our communities while still respecting the complex realities of our University.

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