The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism has had a profound impact on the historical trajectory of Francophones in Canada. The first volume of its 1967 final report states clear conclusions regarding the need to make English and French the official languages of the Parliament of Canada, the federal courts, the federal government and the federal administration – thus paving the way for adopting the Official Languages Act barely two years later.
The Act proclaims English and French as the official languages of Canada. It also asserts that citizens have the right to work in the public service, to be heard in federal court and to receive services from federal administrations or Crown corporations in the official language of their choice. But the Act remains to be implemented. Parliamentarians have made it the battle of their lives. This is the case for two Ottawa-Vanier MPs: Jean-Robert Gauthier and Mauril Bélanger.
Jean-Robert Gauthier is elected Member of Parliament for Ottawa East in 1972, under the Liberal Party of Canada. He is re-elected in the same district, now called Ottawa-Vanier, on several occasions between 1974 and 1993. He also serves in the Senate from 1994 to 2004. Throughout his career, he works hard to ensure full recognition and use of French in Canadian society. Were it not for his repeated interventions, the Official Languages Act would probably not have been revised in 1988 to include provisions on the express responsibility of federal institutions to take measures to promote minority languages. At his initiative, the law is again modified in 2005 to make it more robust. Senator Gauthier passes away in 2009. A Catholic elementary school in Ottawa bears his name.
Mauril Bélanger succeeds him in Ottawa-Vanier in 1995, following a by-election. He is re-elected seven times, with strong majorities, until his death in 2016. Mauril Bélanger follows in the footsteps of his predecessor by making respect for the Official Languages Act one of his main battlegrounds. He is a major player in the Standing Committee on Official Languages – which he leaves abruptly in 2012, reproaching it for its partisan character after the election of a majority Conservative government. Mauril Bélanger is involved in all struggles experienced by the Francophone community in Ottawa. He plays a major role in spearheading the battle to safeguard the Hôpital Montfort. He is actively engaged in the creation of the Nouvelle Scène, a centre for French-language theatre in Ottawa, and convinces the federal government to inject $500,000 more than expected into the project. He also supports the development of the Francophone community radio station, Unique FM.
Jean-Robert Gauthier, great advocate for the Franco-Ontarian cause. Photo illustrating Caroline Barrière’s article, “Un grand défenseur de la cause franco-ontarienne” (A great defender of the Franco-Ontarian cause), published in Le Droit, December 11, 2009. Photo: Le Droit.
Journal Le Droit, 040922 Gauthier JR -1 CO.