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Franco-Canadian Civic Life in the Age of Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Necessary

Franco-Canadian Civic Life in the Age of Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Necessary

Written by
Antoine Panaïoti
on
June 4th, 2019
Franco-Canadian Civic Life in the Age of Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Necessary

The events that unfolded in November 2018 in Doug Ford’s Ontario give us every reason to be enthusiastic about the positive effects of social media on Canadian democracy, and especially on the ability of French Canadians outside Quebec to defend their rights through large-scale civic engagement.

Within hours of the Ford government informing the public on November 15 that the position of the French Language Services Commissioner would be abolished and the plans to build Ontario’s first French-language higher education institution scrapped, a mass online Franco-Ontarian-led protest movement began. This quickly drew national and international attention to Ford’s cynically partisan attack on Ontario’s largest minority’s hard-won rights and interests.

Franco-Ontarians began storming social media by the tens of thousands within minutes of the Ford government’s announcement. The articles published by Radio-Canada, #ONFR (TFO) and L’Express were shared and re-tweeted hundreds of times. In less than 24 hours, the news snowballed, transforming Ford’s attack on Franco-Ontarian rights into a national crisis. The online La Résistance movement formed, with plans for mass protests quickly taking shape. On November 20, Mélanie Joly, the federal minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie, reinstated the Court Challenges Program of Canada, which provides financial support for legal procedures in defence of constitutionally protected language rights. A group of 40 lawyers got together to explore possible legal challenges to Ford’s plans. Four Franco-Ontarians were invited to the popular Québécois talk show Tout le monde en parle to discuss Ford’s plan and its effects on Franco-Ontarian communities, eliciting a new sense of inter-provincial Franco-solidarity.

Mélanie Joly calls on Ford to reverse francophone service cuts | Power & Politics

As a result, less than a week after making its initial announcements, faced with a movement that seemed to be growing stronger by the day, the Ford government caved and announced a series of measures designed to placate the Franco-fury it had unleashed. The position of French Language Services Commissioner would not disappear and the Office of Francophone Affairs would be turned into a ministry of the same name, with Franco “frenemy” Caroline Mulroney at its head.

In the absence of strong francophone media in Ontario, Ford’s attempt at undermining Franco-Ontarian rights and interests would probably not have registered on the radar.

The Franco-Ontarians and their supporters were only emboldened by these rapid results. The only Franco-Ontarian Conservative MPP, Amanda Simard, asked her government to back down on the cancellation of the Université de l’Ontario français project, but it did not budge. On November 29, Simard quit her party to sit as an independent. At this stage, all federal parties, even the Conservatives, had declared their solidarity with the Franco-Ontarian cause and their support for the creation of Ontario’s first French-language university. The Franco-Ontarian community had become more united than ever. Some 40 demonstrations at the constituency offices of Progressive Conservative MPPs were scheduled for December 1, and more than 13,000 people protested throughout Ontario.

Protests across Ontario over cuts to Francophone services

Such a rapid unfolding of events would have been inconceivable before the age of social media. Denis Gratton, journalist and observer of the last major Franco-Ontarian uprising, the 1992–1997 fight against the Harris government’s plans to shut down Ottawa’s Hôpital Monfort, says: “With social networks, everything is instantaneous. Everyone in the country is informed within seconds of an event or a statement. I wonder if the S.O.S. Montfort battle would have lasted five years if we had had social networks at the time. I doubt it.”

Back then, it took several months for organizers to build a movement and years for the government to back down. Everything happened much faster this time, and it seems unlikely that Franco-Canadians will cease applying pressure on the Ford government until construction work for l’Université de l’Ontario français has begun. It can only be hoped, moreover, that the movement’s success will inspire other Franco-Canadian communities to continue to fight for their rights and combat the rising populist francophobia that threatens to expand beyond its New Brunswick and Manitoba enclaves.

In view of such developments, the age of social media appears to be a boon for the health of Canadian democracy, and particularly for the Franco-Canadian civic engagement so crucial to the thriving of democracy in our bilingual nation.

It is not only by such events, however, that the effects of social media on Franco-Canadian civic life should be measured. Indeed, we must also pay heed to the slower, more pernicious structural and cultural changes that social media channels are bringing about in Canada, and the effects on francophones’ rights and vital interests.

The social media revolution has been a disaster for traditional media, particularly in its impact on the distribution of advertising revenue. Publicists now principally purchase ad time and space on the publicity templates of online companies that distribute news, but produce none. The effects of this shift are significant for large-scale publications, and even greater for media in minority communities.

Franco-Canadian regional newspapers, which already have lower average circulation than their non-urban English-language counterparts, are deeply affected by the massive reduction in revenue. And the federal government’s actions have been part of the problem. Between 2006 and 2015, its advertising spending in French-language newspapers in minority communities fell by 78 per cent, while spending on French-language community radio fell by 73 per cent. During this same period, the government of Canada nearly tripled its advertising investments to the web, from $5 million to $14 million. For an industry sector more dependent than its English counterpart on federal advertisement spending, the results of this shift in spending have been catastrophic. It stands to reason that social media’s domination represents a threat to the vitality of Franco-Ontarian civic life.

The current linguistic crisis in Ontario has made it clear that French-language media play a vital role in protecting the rights of francophones in minority communities throughout this country. Ontario's francophone media did a remarkable job of covering the events of November 2018. While some English-language media relayed the news, it took a week (and pressure from Quebec commentators) before they took a stand in favour of the Franco-Ontarian cause. In the absence of strong francophone media in Ontario, Ford’s attempt at undermining Franco-Ontarian rights and interests would probably not have registered on the radar. This establishes beyond doubt that the vitality of francophone media is essential to the defence of the rights of Canadian francophones outside Quebec.

l'express

What is more, considerations of cultural survival cannot be set aside. Bilingualism is the essence of Canadian democracy. Threats to cultural survival of minority francophone communities are thus threats to our nation’s distinctive democratic character.

In an article published in the journal Minorités linguistiques et société, Christiane Bernier, Simon Laflamme and Sylvie Lafrenière write: “Among francophone minorities, having access to a large number of French-language media has a positive effect on language choices: the more French-language media in their environment, the more francophones use it." This suggests the reverse is also true: Among francophone minorities, limited access to French-language media leads to a reduction in the use and vitality of the French language. So the social media revolution, and more specifically the traditional media advertising revenue crisis that has followed, represents a threat to the cultural survival of Franco-Canadian minority communities. Thus, by weakening one of the principal pillars of healthy democratic life en français in Franco-Canadian communities across majority-English provinces and territories – namely access to local and regional French-language publications and news – the social media revolution has become a menace to Canadian bilingual democracy.

The news is not all bad, though. It is not pre-determined that the current trends cannot be reversed through the implementation of appropriate public policy and legislation. Is it possible for Canadians to benefit from social media’s uses as a vector of rapid democratic mobilization and civic engagement in support of a variety of causes – including Franco-Canadian rights – while correcting for its deleterious effects on the media essential to the civic life and cultural survival of Francophone minorities? This question may be answered in the affirmative.

It is shocking that companies advertising on platforms such as Google and Facebook benefit from a local advertising tax credit.

Until recently, neither the provincial governments nor Ottawa had been much concerned with the crisis in traditional media brought about by the social media revolution. Through its reallocation of advertising spending away from newspapers and radio stations and towards online platforms, the federal government has participated in changes that threaten the vitality of Canadian, and especially Franco-Canadian, journalism.

This has begun to change. Ottawa has announced $595 million over five years to support print media in the form of tax credits and tax incentives. The federal government is also considering using advertising investments to “ensure that the government's advertising budget better supports Canadian content providers and platforms.”

But these measures fail to tackle the root of the problem. Advertisers overwhelmingly turn to major media platforms such as Google and Facebook, which now control nearly 80 per cent of the country’s digital advertising market. Vast sums of money are in this way funnelled away from local media. It is shocking that companies advertising on platforms such as Google and Facebook benefit from a local advertising tax credit.

It is of paramount importance to revise the rules to prevent advertising on Google or Facebook from being tax deductible. A tax needs to be collected on all advertisements placed in foreign media – including Google and Facebook – with the revenues reinvested to support Canadian media. Minority Franco-Canadian community media need to receive an important share of such financial support so that they can thrive in the digital age. This is essential to the flourishing of Franco-Canadian communities and the civic engagement of its members. As such, it is essential to the flourishing of Canada’s bilingual democracy.

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A journalism crisis is threatening Canadian democracy.