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From the “Battle of the Hatpins” to Ford: Over one hundred years of Tory attacks on Franco-Ontarians

Chantal Sundaram

November 24, 2018

As part of a many-pronged attack on equity and minority rights in Ontario this fall, Doug Ford’s government went after the 612,000 Ontarians who identify as Francophones when he cancelled plans to found a French-language university in Ontario and dismantled the Commissariat of French-language services. But the attacks have met with enormous resistance. And despite Ford partly backing down on these plans on November 23, Francophone organizations vow to continue to fight for full restoration of the Commissariat and francophone university.

It was less than three years ago that ex-Premier Kathleen Wynne acknowledged the bitter history that lies behind suppression of the French language in this province. She issued a formal apology in Queen’s Park to the Franco-Ontarian community for a rule that virtually banned the use of French in elementary schools early last century: "Regulation 17 showed a disregard for Franco-Ontarian identity and equality, and on behalf of the government of Ontario I offer an apology."

That apology might ring hollow from a Liberal government which itself did not invest enough to properly sustain services and education in French. And of course any apology on behalf of the “government of Ontario” rings especially hollow now with Ford at the helm.

But the reason the apology took place when it did was the 100th anniversary of the “Battle of the Hatpins” against Regulation 17: a chapter of Franco-Ontarian history – and women’s history – that should not be forgotten.

The story provides insight into the Tories’ long tradition of anti-Francophone politics in this province: going right back to 1912, when a Conservative government passed Regulation 17, in order to assimilate the Francophone population of Ontario.

Regulation 17

Regulation 17 severely restricted the use of French by teachers in both Catholic and public schools across Ontario right up until 1927, despite the fact that it was home to the largest French-speaking population in Canada outside of Quebec at the time. Many of this generation, especially in northern Ontario, were denied the right to learn to write or speak their own language.

Regulation 17 was implemented amidst a rise of British sentiment in the Ontario government in the lead-up to WWI, and was enforced by threats to school funding and to teachers' certifications if schools or individual teachers continued to allow French to be spoken.

It forced many Francophone teachers to resort to hiding French textbooks and pretending to teach in English when school inspectors would visit the classroom.

But there were some schools that openly defied the government, calling themselves "écoles de la résistance." And there were large protests against the Regulation, especially in the Ottawa area, leading to the founding of Francophone newspapers and organizations, many of which are still in place today.

“Ecoles de la résistance”

At the heart of resistance was Guigues elementary school in Ottawa, where two teachers made history. 

In 1915 two sisters, Diane Desloges and Béatrice Desloges, both teachers at Guigues elementary school, refused to implement the provisions of Regulation 17. They were both banned from school property. With support from some parents and members of the community, they opened classes in a “free school” located in a church basement and later in a commercial building.

Provincial authorities withheld their salaries and revoked their teaching certificates but they refused to back down. Students left Guigues elementary school en masse and the teachers hired to replace the Desloges sisters were soon alone in an empty building.

It wasn’t long after that parents launched a popular movement of civil disobedience. A group of mothers stormed the Guigues school in what came to be known as the “Battle of the Hatpins.”

Battle and occupation

On January 4, 1916 the group of mothers, armed with scissors and hatpins, occupied the Guigues elementary school and began guarding the school’s entrance. The Desloges sisters defied an injunction ordering them to immediately leave the school grounds or face arrest and imprisonment. They were protected by the mothers, who became known as the “guardians of the school.” Together this alliance of teachers and mothers staged a long day-and-night siege of what became the most famous “école de la résistance.”

At the end of January 1916, French students in Ottawa took part in a series of protests and sent a delegation to City Hall to demand that the salaries owed to their teachers be paid. As the protests continued, the “guardians of the school” maintained their vigil in the schools on strike until June. In order to thwart any attempt by the provincial authorities to expel the teaching staff, groups of women – again mostly mothers – remained on guard in front of the school armed with their hatpins.

Finally, with the beginning of the school year in the fall of 1916, the schools were reopened and the teachers were paid their salaries in arrears. The crisis came to an end in 1921 and bilingual schools in the province were officially recognized in 1927.

The two central heroines of this story were not forgotten by the Francophone community of Ottawa, who in 1997 named a high school in a French-speaking suburb of Ottawa “Béatrice-Desloges.” But equally worthy of remembrance are the mothers who defended them, the “guardians” of resistance to assimilation. 

This is an important example of grassroots resistance that has had smaller echoes in more recent Franco-Ontarian struggles, like the successful fight to save the French-language Montford Hospital in Ottawa from the healthcare cuts of yet another Tory premier, Mike Harris.

Resistance today

Resistance to Ford’s renewed attack on Franco-Ontarians has already begun. While there is much to learn from the “Battle of the Hatpins,” today Franco-Ontarians need the support of their Anglophone and Allophone allies to take on Ford.

On December 1 at 1pm, more than 40 simultaneous rallies will take place across Ontario at Tory MPP offices and public locations – including Queen’s Park and the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa – as well as in many small communities in francophone areas in the north.

You can find the locations and register your participation here. On Twitter : #RespectFranco #ONfr


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