Can Doug Ford hope to attract the Franco-Ontarian vote?

Can Doug Ford hope to attract the Franco-Ontarian vote?

Stewart Kiff | March 2018

With Doug Ford now at the helm of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, it remains to be seen whether the controversial choice made by the party membership will be endorsed by the electorate come Election Day next June. Some speculate that the PCs have just made themselves less attractive to the centrist voters who represent a majority in the province.

Certainly, poll after poll over the last months has shown that Ontario is ripe for change after 15 years of Liberal rule. And a Forum poll conducted the day after Ford’s election confirms that trend. Even though 48 % of respondents disapprove of Doug Ford as PC leader, 44 % would still be inclined to vote for the PCs, more than enough to make Ford the next Premier with a strong majority government.

But how will things play it in those ridings where Franco-Ontarians represent a large number of voters? Can Doug Ford win them over?

In the past, under leaders such as John Robarts and Bill Davis, Franco-Ontarians were not averse to voting for the PCs. And Francophone PC MPPs were regularly elected in both Northern and Eastern Ontario ridings. Even former Vanier Mayor Gisèle Lalonde, a strong advocate of the Franco-Ontarian community who would later lead the fight to save the Montfort Hospital from closure, ran (unsuccessfully) for the PCs in the 1977 election.

But since Mike Harris attempted, in 1997, to close the Montfort Hospital, the province’s only French-language teaching hospital, Franco-Ontarians have remained wary of the PCs. Currently, the PC caucus has no Franco-Ontarian members and the PCs do not represent any of the ridings where there is a significant Francophone population.

Recently ousted PC leader Patrick Brown had set out to change that. With an eye on some ridings in Northern and Eastern Ontario, he reached out to the Francophone community, meeting with its leaders, attending various events and publicly voicing his support for improved French-language services across the province and for the creation of a Franco-Ontarian University. The fact that he does speak French and spent time in Ottawa as an MP gave him a pretty good understanding of the issues that are important to the Francophone community and allowed him to interact directly with that community.

It now remains to be seen whether the PCs under Doug Ford can attract a significant portion of the Francophone vote. His populist approach and slogans might resonate with portions of that electorate. And Franco-Ontarian leaders who met with him during the leadership campaign were cautiously optimistic, indicating that he expressed support for extending French-language services and seemed receptive to projects like a Franco-Ontarian University.

It’s obvious however that Doug Ford has work to do. Living in a Toronto suburb and having never traveled extensively across the province, his understanding of Francophone issues is tenuous at best and his contacts in the community are few and far between. But he is a politician and he will be aiming to win ridings like Glengarry-Prescott-Russell in the East and Mushkegowuk-James Bay in the North, where the party has already recruited Franco-Ontarian candidates. As well, some of his advisers appear to be sensitive to issues that will resonate with the Francophone electorate. It will be up to Franco-Ontarian leaders to raise Doug Ford’s awareness of their issues and secure some commitments from him before June 7.

That being said, it will not be easy for the new PC leader to overcome the long-standing distrust of the Francophone community. Minorities are generally wary of politicians who promise to find massive savings in governmental services, since services to a minority are often seen as expendable. Add to that the fact that both the Liberals and the NDP have well-established links with the Franco-Ontarian community and already represent the ridings where there is a significant Francophone population.

Like other Ontarians, Franco-Ontarians may very well be looking for change on June 7. But many will need to be persuaded that with Doug Ford, the PC party can truly have their interests at heart.


Comments are closed.