Ottawa-Vanier federal by-election

Stewart Kiff | March 2017

The challenge of changing demographics for the Franco-Ontarian community

To say that the riding of Ottawa-Vanier is a Liberal stronghold is not an exaggeration. At the federal level, only Liberals have been elected since the creation of the riding in 1935. At the provincial level, where it exists since 1908, the riding has been represented almost non-stop by a Liberal MPP, except for a few short periods during which Conservatives held the seat.

But voting Liberal is not the only constant in this downtown Ottawa riding. All of Ottawa-Vanier’s elected representatives have been Franco-Ontarian, save for its very first MPP. Leduc, Chevrier, Morin, Racine, Côté, Pinard, Chartrand, Gauthier, Roy, Grandmaître, Boyer, the names of former MPs and MPPs read like a genealogical directory of Ontario’s Franco-Ontarian community.

The riding’s Liberal tradition was again confirmed last November 15 when Nathalie DesRosiers won the provincial by-election to fill the seat vacated by former Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur. Chances are that tradition will also be maintained after the federal by-election coming up on April 3rd 2017. Given the current popularity of the Trudeau government and the riding’s Liberal history, Liberal candidate Mona Fortier is almost assured of succeeding the late Mauril Bélanger.

But that is only part of the story. Vanier has long been home to a large Francophone population, but since 1992, the size of this linguistic group has fallen by more than half. Francophones now represent only 30 % of the riding’s population.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, two of the four parties vying for the empty seat appear to have concluded that the Francophone factor is now just one of the many criteria in selecting a candidate. Indeed, both the Conservative Party and the Green Party are running candidates who do not speak French. For her part, NDP candidate Emilie Taman does not appear to have very deep ties in Ottawa’s Francophone community, but she is at least perfectly bilingual.

Let’s dial back to the recent race for the Liberal nomination. Eight candidates were in the running, all of them bilingual. Four were closely associated with the traditional Franco-Ontarian community. Three of the remaining four came from new Canadian communities, which now represent a significant portion of the electorate in Ottawa-Vanier.

It’s interesting to note that all the candidates, both in their campaign material and their speeches, stressed the importance of maintaining Ottawa-Vanier’s Francophone heritage and committed to promoting official bilingualism and defending the rights of the French-speaking minority community.

The race was very tight. Despite her strong track record and long-time involvement in the riding, with the local Liberal Association and in the Francophone community, Mona Fortier finished just ahead of her closest opponent after seven rounds of voting. That rival was Khatera Akbari, a federal employee who came to Canada from Afghanistan as a young girl and who garnered a lot of support among Ottawa-Vanier’s growing new Canadian population.

Some analysts have argued that by not rallying behind a single “native” candidate, the Franco-Ontarian community came close to losing one of the few seats in the country that gives a voice to the Francophone minority community. They added the community should heed that lesson in the future.

I beg to differ. I would argue it is healthy for the Francophone community and for the democratic process to have several good candidates throw their hat in the ring. It should also be noted that all the candidates attached great importance to Francophone issues, all of them, for example, speaking in favor of official bilingualism in Ottawa.

I draw a few conclusions. The first is that demographics will continue to evolve, affecting the relative weight of the Francophone community in Ottawa-Vanier. Welcoming more newcomers would therefore help the Francophone community. This is all the more true given the fact that, according to national surveys, Canadians whose mother tongue is neither English nor French are more likely than Anglophones to support official bilingualism and to promote the provision of services in both languages. Second, for the time being at least, the Liberal Party is the most likely to attract candidates who value bilingualism and minority rights. Traditionally, that party has also been the most successful in rallying New Canadian communities.

During the campaign for the Liberal nomination, Khatera Akbari testified eloquently to her attachment to Vanier’s Francophone community for the welcome it extended her family on its arrival in Canada. This attachment prompted her to learn French.

In a not so distant future, a Khatera Akbari could very well maintain the Liberal tradition in Ottawa-Vanier and also be a convincing spokesperson for the Francophone community.

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