In focus

French at the University of Ottawa, since 1965

Neither the University of Ottawa’s civil charter (1866) nor its pontifical charter (1889) mentions bilingualism. But it does appear in the University of Ottawa Act, which enshrines the institution’s new status in 1965, with the objective to “further bilingualism and biculturalism,” as well as “preserve and develop French culture in Ontario.”1 The coexistence of French and English will not, however, be less difficult than it was previously.

Bilingualism, not having been explicitly prescribed thus far, is applied very unevenly at the University of Ottawa. In 1965, French is virtually absent from programs in the sciences, engineering, health sciences and medicine. In 1966, the Senate establishes a committee to prepare a regulation on bilingualism. Unable to reach consensus, it is replaced three years later by a smaller working group which takes two years to table a report subsequently debated at length in the Senate. In short, the task of developing a regulation proves to be arduous, and it is not until 1974 that one will finally be adopted. It will take more than a decade to produce the first detailed plans to develop French-language programs and services (1986 and 1991).

Meanwhile, the institution experiences tremendous growth. The population of full-time and part-time students rises from 11,000 in 1965 to 25,000 in 1998. The proportion of Francophone students, however, drops from 50% in 1965 to 36.5% in 1998. The 1993 abolition of the mandatory bilingualism test for an undergraduate degree partly explains the decline. The arrival of the double cohort in September 2003, on the heels of the abolition of Grade 13 in Ontario, accelerates the process, pushing the percentage of Francophones below 30%. It remains around 30% in an institution that has been receiving over 40,000 students annually since 2010. Although the availability of courses and programs in French has never been more developed, French is heard less and less on campus. It will not be surprising for the issue of a French-language university in Ontario to return to the limelight.

1 1965 University of Ottawa Act, S.O. 1965, C. 137.