A well-known member of Yellowknife’s francophone community took issue with some fellow residents after news of federal funding for French-speaking newcomers was greeted with disdain.
On Friday, NWT MP Michael McLeod told reporters his Liberal government would provide a little over $300,000 to fund programs helping Yellowknife’s francophone new arrivals settle in the city.
The announcement was met with near-universal opposition among those commenting beneath Cabin Radio’s reporting of the news on Facebook.
“What about local Canadians struggling in poverty?” one comment asked.
Another wrote: “Someone please explain to me why French-speaking newcomers are so special that welcoming them warrants special funding. Frankly, I find this offensive, discriminatory, and potentially divisive.”
The apparent backlash led Batiste Foisy, a francophone Yellowknife resident who has worked in the city as an artist, journalist, and broadcaster, to take on the critics.
In a detailed response posted to Facebook, Foisy questioned why people appeared to treat the announcement as though no funding had ever, at any point, been provided for other languages or services.
“Just like programs to accommodate the disabled do not block access to the able majority, offering services in French does not mean non-French speaking residents are being offered less,” Foisy wrote.
“Those original, English-only services are still there and they are still funded. In fact, they are much more readily available and they are radically better-funded than French services.”
He added: “The bulk of that particular funding to help French-speaking newcomers … will be used to teach them English!”
Answering commenters who had demanded “more … for those of us already here,” Foisy said theirs was “unwarranted outrage.”
He wrote: “Virtually any government money spent in the North for French is federal money. Funding these programs does not defund other programs delivered by the territory.
“Even if you sincerely believe official languages are worthless, I bet you can still appreciate the value of funneling millions from Ottawa in the North. This money gets spent here, local businesses and northerners directly benefit from it.
“In this case, the $300,000 subsidy came from a small federal immigration program designed to fund a limited 14 communities across the country. Isn’t it a good thing when a local non-profit is vigilant enough to notice an obscure federal money pot, to step up to plate, and to take the necessary bureaucratic steps to secure a piece of the pie for the North?”
Precise figures for federal spending per language are almost impossible to pin down.
The last Liberal budget promised $334 million over the next five years for the preservation, promotion, and revitalization of Indigenous languages across the country.
Welcoming Francophone Communities, the federal initiative through which Yellowknife is getting its $300,000, is worth $12.6 million across Canada over three years. It is, of course, far from the only federal spending on French-language programs and services.
At territorial government and Indigenous government level, the NWT’s Department of Education, Culture, and Employment spent $10.9 million to fund its Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat in 2017-18.
In the same financial year, the same department spent $8.6 million delivering French-language services and education, it said in an annual report on such funding.
Money spent on English-language programs is difficult to accurately assess through the same lens but is orders of magnitude higher, given the vast majority of territorial government programs and services are delivered in English by default.
“Most immigration candidates don’t prioritize the North as their Canadian landing ground, but the French card that we do have in our deck can sometimes make a difference in retaining the talent we need ,” Foisy argued.
“But then, if they do come here and realize that this whole ‘you’ll be able to access services in your language’ pitch was just smoke and mirrors, they might pack up and leave.
“The meagre all-federal investment announced this week, amounting to less than one high-ranking GNWT bureaucrat salary, is to create the impression that this outlandish promise is fulfilled to an extent.”
He urged fellow Yellowknife residents to bear his arguments in mind “before you waste tar and feathers on the Frenchie next door.”