Going Out

THIS CITY: Parlez-vous English? Debating Bilingualism in Ottawa


This article was originally published in the May 2015 edition of Ottawa Magazine.

Illustration by Michael George Haddad
Illustration by Michael George Haddad

Is it time for the capital to become officially bilingual? Some people think so, and they have set the deadline as 2017, when the city is to play host to the celebrations of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation.

It would be a symbolic time, they say, to take a significant step toward ensuring that Canadians are just as bienvenue in the capital as they are welcome.

But hold on — isn’t Ottawa already officially bilingual? After all, the three levels of government strive to offer services in both languages, children speak French on their way to school, people converse casually in the two official languages, and “rue” precedes the names of streets on signs, just as “St.” follows. It is, some would say, what many Canadians want to believe their capital is: a model for bilingualism.

Not so fast. While the city has a policy to serve people in both English and French, language rights are not engrained in law — a fact that could lead to the erosion of French being spoken in the capital.

The region is full of anglophones, francophones, allophones (a Québécois term for people whose mother tongue is neither English nor French), and people who are bilingual. But unlike Montreal or Moncton, where shopkeepers greet customers in both languages, there seems to be a mentality in this region that English is, for the most part, the language spoken in Ontario, while French is the language of choice in Quebec. Rarely shall the two meet (outside the public service).

An example of the awkwardness surrounding un-official bilingualism in Ottawa can be seen in the banners for the 150th festivities. They hang off city hall and federal buildings downtown, as well as at the train station, where visitors arrive. “Be Here for Canada’s Big Year” is written in large letters; in smaller letters, “Où le Canada entier célébrera sa fierté” (“Where all of Canada will celebrate its pride”).

The best way to celebrate that pride, according to Jacques de Courville Nicol, the person who started the official bilingualism initiative — the National Movement for an Officially Bilingual Capital of Canada — is by enshrining the equal rights of English and French in the capital into law, thereby leaving a legacy project after the big bash in 2017.

“It’s a strong message when your capital is officially bilingual. Our country is. Why not our capital?”
~ Geneviève Latour, the National Movement for an Officially Bilingual Capital of Canada

A 73-year-old staunch federalist who worked for the federal government under Pierre Trudeau, de Courville Nicol says Ottawa is supposed to be the bridge between English Canada and French Canada. “Ottawa is not just another city of Ontario. It is the capital of Canada.”

Francophones, he says, “deserve to be a part of our national capital, for god’s sake. It’s not normal.” De Courville Nicol believes the lack of official bilingualism means French lacks a certain legitimacy in Ottawa.

And there is a group of young people who agree. Regroupement étudiant franco-ontarien is an Ontario francophone student group. They have started an online petition asking Canadians from across the country to sign on.

The 150th anniversary is a “milestone,” says 27-year-old Alain Dupuis, the group’s director. Official bilingualism for the city would give Franco-Ontarians “protection that their services are guaranteed and they will be for generations to come,” he says.

Dupuis, a Sudbury native, says the change would be a great “nation-building” move that would help the French language thrive in the capital. In addition to its practical use, the move would be a powerful symbol, one that might not be important for the anglophone community but is for francophones.

“It’s a strong message when your capital is officially bilingual. Our country is. Why not our capital?” says Geneviève Latour, the group’s co-president, who is 27 and grew up in St. Albert, Ontario.

Latour says that a capital that doesn’t represent the country’s linguistic duality sends a message “that French is not as important or is the second official language — and it’s not. Language equality should be engrained in law in the capital,” she says.

What official bilingualism would mean in practice, in terms of French use in business or on commercial signs, is not clear because opinions vary. De Courville Nicol is clear on one thing, though: he doesn’t want language police.

The most direct way for official bilingualism to become a reality is for the city to ask the province to change the City of Ottawa Act, which seems unlikely because of the lack of interest among city councillors.

Mayor Jim Watson, whom many see as a friend of the francophone community, is against the idea.

Capital Ward councillor David Chernushenko, who also opposes the idea, agreed to meet in his office to explain why he thinks official bilingualism is not necessary.

“There’s a big gap between the noble sentiment of being bilingual and the reality of making it happen”
~Capital Ward councillor David Chernushenko

The reasons why he disagrees with the proposal are many: he has not heard the issue raised by his constituents, he is worried about the increased costs that he suspects would come with official bilingualism, and he is concerned that the move would ignite the fire of angry people who are vehemently opposed.

“If we open up this one, from both sides, you will have the ardent francophone on one side saying, ‘That’s not bilingual enough,’ and you will have the English ‘Oh, we’re all so hard-done-by repressed majority. What a waste of money. No one’s going to make me learn French.’ ” He laughs at the thought.

Chernushenko says that the city does have a double standard, favouring anglophones, and that by operating as it does, it is taking the side of the growing majority of English speakers who might otherwise raise hell if it were any other way.

“I wish it weren’t that way. I wish it was easier and that we were all sharing both cultures,” says Chernushenko.

What he prefers is something that could be labelled unofficial “practical” bilingualism, which, he says, is what exists now. This approach is about fixing what is not working for francophones in the city.

But de Courville Nicol, Latour, and Dupuis say that is not good enough, because it means French language rights are at the mercy of city council. Madeleine Meilleur, MPP for Ottawa-Vanier and the Ontario minister of francophone affairs, agrees. She says that right now, if the city wanted to get rid of services in French, it is within its rights to do that.

In an interview at her Vanier office, she said it is her hope that the city will reconsider, because the province will certainly not move to make the city bilingual on its own.

“Let’s hope that they have the vision and the goodwill of offering this gift to the francophone community living in and outside of Ottawa,” says Meilleur, adding that the federal government should pick up the tab on extra costs because it is the national capital, after all.

Official bilingualism for the city would be a “safeguard for the future,” says Meilleur.

Ottawa may never be that city, like Montreal, where two anglophone strangers naturally speak to each other in French, or Moncton (the country’s first officially bilingual city), where people begin a sentence in one language and end it in another, but some francophones here are hoping to make small steps toward that. They admit, though, that they can’t do it without the anglophone community wanting it as well.


Denis Calnan has written for The New York Times and the Toronto Star. He has reported for the CBC in six provinces and is based in Ottawa.