OTTAWA — Blindsided by the Ontario premier's decision to cut French services, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's camp is hoping that Doug Ford realizes he's set off a national debate that could hurt Scheer in next year's federal election.
"We are associated to a decision that we did not help make, that we were not aware of — we learned this at the same time as everybody else when they made their announcement — and now, it's like, as if by association, we are OK with that decision," a frustrated member of Scheer's team told HuffPost Canada on Sunday.
In a fiscal update Thursday, the Ford government announced it was backing away from its election promise to fund a French-language university in Toronto and was eliminating the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner — moving some of those responsibilities to the province's ombudsman.
The provincial government painted the decision as a cost-cutting move, though it did not reveal how much money it expected to save.
"The road ahead is not an easy one and will require difficult decisions," Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said. "Everyone across the province will be required to make sacrifices, without exception."
Scheer was not consulted on the decision or given any advanced notice, the source said. It was also clear from Ford's team's initial response that they had given no thought to what the decision might mean for the federal Conservative leader, he added.
When Scheer's office called them Friday morning, "it was like [we were] coming from Mars," the source said. "Life and politics, it is not just numbers."
At a press conference Sunday, Scheer said he conveyed "concerns" he heard from people, including members of his caucus, to Ford directly on Saturday when the two met at the Ontario PC convention in Toronto.
"And [I] just reinforced with him the idea that as prime minister in 2019, I would certainly be looking for ways of protecting and enhancing services to official languages communities all over Canada, of course, in Ontario as well," Scheer said.
But the Tory leader sidestepped questions over whether he had asked Ford to reverse the cuts.
"It's up to Mr. Ford to manage those types of things," Scheer responded, when asked again whether he made a direct request of the Ontario premier.
Scheer said his support for the official languages "is unwavering," and he said it would be "very, very clear to Canadians" where he stands on protecting official languages in next year's election.
He remained hopeful, it seemed, that voters would see a distinction.
"People in the next federal election will be voting on federal issues," he said. "And people in provincial elections vote on provincial issues."
Scheer spoke with Ford, Caroline Mulroney
Scheer isn't trying to say he doesn't care what happens to Franco-Ontarians, the source told HuffPost.
"We could have gone to Toronto and not talked to him about it. We sat with him, we told him to his face: 'What did you just do? And why? And this doesn't work, there are consequences and maybe you don't realize it.'"
Scheer spoke with Ford and with Caroline Mulroney, the minister responsible for francophone affairs.
The two leaders spoke for 15 minutes. "After two minutes, we realized that he wasn't going to change his mind," the source said. "It was like talking to a wall."
Scheer's camp told the Ford team that their decision hadn't just touched a chord in Ontario, but also one in Quebec. Columns and editorials denouncing the decision have been published in every major Quebec newspaper, with some opinion writers questioning the province's role in the federation if official languages are so easily attacked elsewhere.
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"Anglophones are more rational, but us francophones, we are more emotional," the source said.
He compared Ford's decision to former prime minister Stephen Harper's decision to cut services to veterans. The government at the time thought it was doing a good thing, solving a problem by streamlining services and closing small offices, but instead, he noted, the decision set off a firestorm in the veterans community and created enemies for no good reason.
"We made that mistake. And now they've made that same goddamn error that we did in the past."
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his deep disappointment with Ford's decision, federal Official Languages Minister Mélanie Joly sought to paint the Ontario premier and Scheer with the same brush. She tweeted over the weekend: "Scheer and Ford's Conservatives should know that Francophones cannot and will not be shortchanged."
Scheer and Ford's Conservatives should know that Francophones cannot and will not be shortchanged. We will defend the 600,000 Franco-Ontarians and 7,9 millions Francophones of our country. https://t.co/bcSSYz4pA3— Mélanie Joly (@melaniejoly) November 18, 2018
Scheer spent much of his Sunday press conference complaining that the Liberals were politicizing the issue and noting that he had been the first leader to reach out to Ford's office.
"We shouldn't have to wear this," the Tory source told HuffPost. "I think up to now, we've done what we've needed to do.
"We sat with Mulroney. We sat with Ford. We delivered a message: our own concerns, the concerns of our caucus," the source said. "And after that, they are big boys... .
"We'll talk to them again [Monday] and I would really like them to say, 'we're reversing our decision.'"
Earlier: Ontario's Finance Minister Vic Fedeli defends budget cuts