Bilingual Ottawa: it’s about politics, not what’s right

Bilingual Ottawa: it’s about politics, not what’s right

Stewart Kiff | June 2017

Marching gets results.

What other conclusion can we draw from the introduction yesterday at Queen’s Park of a Bill to amend the City of Ottawa Act to include the city’s current by-law on bilingual administration and services? Surely it’s not mere coincidence that Ottawa-Vanier MPP, Nathalie Des Rosiers, held a hastily-called press conference to introduce her private member’s bill merely hours after some 1200 marchers, mostly high school students, descended on City Hall in support of making Ottawa a bilingual city.

The issue is not new. Ottawa’s, Ontario’s and Canada’s francophone leadership, as well as groups such as Dialogue Canada, have called repeatedly for the Nation’s Capital to be made officially bilingual. Those calls have been more sustained in the last 18 months with the target of achieving some form of official bilingual status for Ottawa in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

And it’s not as if Des Rosiers’ Bill required countless hours of legal work. It fits on half a page, and barely changes anything, merely giving an enhanced status to an existing by-law. Indeed, as David Reevely aptly points out in the Ottawa Citizen, “Des Rosiers’ bill contains just about the smallest quantum of action possible. Anything less and you couldn’t write a law around it.”

On top of that, the Bill was introduced only one day before the Legislature adjourns for the summer, ensuring it will not be adopted until the fall − if at all given the current state of affairs at Queen’s Park. Whereas eight such bills are normally passed during each legislative session – four from the governing party’s MPPs and two from each of the opposition parties’ members – none were passed during the just expired session.

If the Wynne Government was truly committed to enhancing the status of bilingualism in Ottawa, it could have acted years ago. Former Ottawa-Vanier MPP, Madeleine Meilleur, who was Attorney General and Minister of Francophone Affairs, was in a position to bring forth a bill well before she left politics last June. And, as Government House Leader, current Attorney General and Ottawa MPP, Yasir Naqvi, could have done the same anytime during the last year. Of course, that would not have pleased Mayor Jim Watson, himself a former Ontario Liberal Minister, who has repeatedly refused to entertain any discussion on the issue.

Even at this late date, the Liberals could have opted for an expeditious process by introducing a Government bill rather than a private member’s bill. Since both opposition parties have indicated they support recognizing Ottawa as a bilingual city, a Government bill could have been passed merely hours after being introduced, thus in time for the July 1 anniversary of Confederation. That way at least, what is largely a symbolic bill would have had more meaning.

But as always, governments, especially when elections are close at hand, engage in partisan politics on what should be non-partisan issues. That’s why only Liberal MPPs were present for the photo-op at Nathalie Des Rosier’s press conference. Inviting the leaders of the opposition parties would have given them unwanted visibility. Heaven forbid that happening, especially just days after Conservative leader Patrick Brown − who speaks French and has been working hard at reconnecting his party with the Franco-Ontarian community – ousted Carleton-Mississippi Mills MPP Jack MacLaren from the party on the basis of the MPP’s anti-Francophone comments.

Instead, the Liberals chose to torque up new MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers’ profile, bolstering her accomplishments ahead of next year’s elections. And it worked. Des Rosiers whisked back into Ottawa last night in time to get a standing ovation at a rally in support of making Ottawa a bilingual city. Never mind that her bill doesn’t come close to meeting the objectives of the Bilingual Ottawa Bilingue group, “to make Ottawa officially bilingual with English and French having equal status, rights and privileges plus creating a formal mechanism to ensure proactive oversight and adherence to policy and the law.”

The proponents of a bilingual Ottawa should therefore take notice. Governments will act on this issue as on others for political reasons, and not because making the Nation’s Capital officially bilingual would be the logical and right thing to do for the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

And that is why they will need to keep on marching.


**Note: This article was published in a shorter version in the Ottawa Sun. You can read it here.

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