Ohio’s French-Speaking Neighbors…Just Across Lake Erie

Dr. Roger Anderson
Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures, Central State University

French teachers know that they can practice their French in Paris, in Nice, or even in Montreal or Quebec City, but what about in locations even closer than that… say, even an hour drive away from Toledo!

Ohio is among the few states in the country with an international border, running through Lake Erie, with Ontario, Canada. While all of Canada is officially bilingual (English/ French), and the province of Quebec is officially monolingual (French), Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, boasts both French heritage as well as pockets of French-speaking communities across this vast, vast province.

My recently canceled flight to Quebec detoured me to Ontario, adventuring in search of French-speaking Ontarians, heretofore Franco-Ontarians. Although they may not receive much attention in French educational materials, these communities are real, to the degree that Franco-Ontarians celebrate their identity with a flag, distinct from that of Ontario’s. Like the Quebec flag, it too prominently displays the fleur-de-lis, or iris, which has come to symbolize la francophonie globally. It does so in green and white, not with Quebec’s blue and white. 

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The Franco-Ontarian Flag
Photo credit: Dr. Roger Anderson

These communities are not new. In fact, the city of Detroit was settled by the French, who gave it a French name meaning “the strait” (between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair). A recent 300-year celebration of the founding of Detroit by French families is commemorated with a plaque in Windsor.

For more information on this history (in French, then in English), see links:

http://www.ameriquefrancaise.org/fr/article-300/Rivi%C3%A8re_D%C3%A9troit_comme_lieu_de_m%C3%A9moire_francophone.html#.Yakq9tDMKyI

https://www.ontario.ca/page/franco-ontarian-history

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Commemorating 300 years of French Families’ Founding Detroit
Photo credit: www.ameriquefrancaise.org

That said, a drive through these communities will not show signs of Francophone communities. Numerous streets and place names bear French names, and even the layout of these cities reflects French design. Highway signs are written in two languages. Yet today, few, if any,  businesses seem to advertise in French, with the exceptions of governmental service buildings. 

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A regional courthouse in Welland, Ontario
Photo credit: Dr. Roger Anderson 

Although English predominates in Ontario, 26 French-speaking communities have registered with the provincial government, with more than 5,000 Francophones living there. By law, this requires that the provincial government provide services in both English and French within these communities. 

These bilingual communities have been described as a chapelet of communities. This word can translate into English as a chain, a series, or even a rosary. The religious denotation seems an apt metaphor for a few reasons.

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A “rosary” of Francophone communities scattered around Ontario 
Photo credit: Office of Francophone Affairs, Ontario
https://files.ontario.ca/ofa_designated_areas_map_en.pdf

Catholicism and the French language seem entwined throughout Canadian history. Until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960’s, the Catholic church was the singularly dominant force within Quebec politics. Throughout Ontario today, the Catholic church plays a central role in the continuity of education in French. French language schools across the province are administered as non-public schools by Catholic organizations. Such schools receive government funding, per the 1867 Canadian constitution, demonstrating that the U.S. tradition of separating church and state is not universal on the North American continent.

In addition to a school, each of the Franco-Ontarian communities I visited centered around une église (a church)/ une paroisse (a parish), such as Paroisse St. Jérome, in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit, Michigan. In fact, due to the pandemic, curious Francophiles can even live-stream Sunday mass in French from their website, https://stjeromewindsor.ca/

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St. Jérome in Windsor, Ontario
Photo credit: Dr. Roger Anderson 

One (rough) measure of a community’s bilingualism is the number of shelves of French-language materials in public libraries. Sudbury’s selection is extensive.

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Books in French for all aged-readers, including teens
Photo credit: Dr. Roger Anderson 

My travels took me to locations between Detroit and Buffalo, and as far north as Sudbury, considered the last city of size in Northern Ontario. 

The few Franco-Ontarians I did meet revealed a very complicated picture. Many Ontarians proudly identify as Franco-Ontarians despite an inability to speak French, or their discontinued use of French within their family a generation or two earlier. 

Others explained that French is only utilized within homes. Yet others insisted that the farther north in Ontario (closer to the Hudson Bay), the greater the concentration of Francophones (even as the population lessens), as well as the greater their commitment to the French language. Linguistically, Ontario French, I was informed, is distinctly NOT Quebec French, and of course is distinct from Metropolitan French.

One such manifestation: in Metropolitan French, collège signifies middle school, lycée signifies high school, and université signifies higher education/ university. Yet to Franco-Ontarians, middle school is part of école primaire, high school is secondaire, and collège is post-high school education in a certificate-granting, publicly-funded institution that are distinct from universities. The collège seems similar to the CEGEP system (General and Vocational College), found in Canada only within Quebec.

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One école secondaire in Windsor
Photo credit: Dr. Roger Anderson

While France is an ocean away, and Montreal is a few Great Lakes away, Francophiles can find French heritage, and even French speakers, just across Ohio’s (maritime) border. Clearly, there is a rich heritage to explore, abounding with mysteries! 

Such explorations should be part of Americans’ deeper appreciation for the U.S.’s most important relationship. The U.S. and Canada have a relationship that should not be taken for granted. It is the world’s largest trade relationship and among the.most peaceful and stable relationships between any two countries. Additionally, the U.S. and Canada have the world’s longest border, and Ohio is part of that border.  Ohio’s francophiles should not pass up the opportunity to learn, teach, and explore Francophone Ontario!

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