In focus

Francophone mayors of Ottawa

Few Francophones have occupied the mayor’s seat in Ottawa. Between 1857 and 2017, only eight French-sounding names have appeared among the fifty people who have served as the head of municipal government.

 Joseph-Balsora Turgeon, mayor of Bytown from 1853 to 1854, is the first. It takes twenty years for another influential businessman from Lowertown, Eugène Martineau, to take on the role of mayor in 1872 and 1873, after serving as alderman for 16 years. He supports the construction of an aqueduct to supply water to the city.

In 1882, it is Pierre Saint-Jean’s turn to make an entrance at City Hall. He is elected by universal suffrage after serving as a member of the House of Commons from 1873 to 1878. It is unclear whether Ottawa is his birthplace, but he is educated at the private school established on Sussex Avenue in 1838 by Mrs. Zoé Masson. According to Georgette Lamoureux, who offers a rich chronology of significant events in the history of Ottawa’s French-Canadian population, Dr. Saint-Jean is involved in all of Ottawa’s patriotic and cultural movements. 

A decade later, in 1892, Olivier Durocher takes his turn serving as the mayor of Ottawa. A cobbler and merchant, Durocher is general president of Ottawa’s Union Saint-Joseph from 1895 to 1906, and again from 1912 to 1917. Dr. F.-X. Valade lobbied for the position a few years earlier, but was defeated.  

Another French Canadian, Pharmacist Thomas Payment, directs Ottawa’s destiny from 1899 to 1901. At the city’s helm when the great fire spreads across the LeBreton Flats, he calls Toronto, Montréal and other cities for reinforcements. Debates surrounding his candidacy reveal that various tensions in Ottawa – between Lowertown and Upper Town, Reformists and Conservatives, Francophones and Anglophones – are as acute as they were at the turn of the 20th century.

Napoleon Champagne, a lawyer with Conservative allegiance and a former president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, replaces the elected mayor in 1908 and again in 1924. He also represents the Ottawa East riding in Ontario’s Legislative Assembly from 1911 to 1914, where he is credited with taking a strong stance in favour of the Francophone community.

Eddy A. Bourque is elected mayor in 1949, after serving as a commissioner for 12 years. He takes up the position at a pivotal time in Ottawa’s history, when the city enters a period of significant development. Unlike his predecessors, he is remembered less for his patriotic engagements and more for his work as an active municipal politician. Among other things, he is compelled to work with the federal government to fulfill its wishes to literally create a “national capital” in what has until then been a small town of public servants managed by its commercial and professional elites.

 Another lawyer, Pierre Benoit, heads the City of Ottawa from 1972 to 1974, in this same context.  He is at the forefront of the City’s negotiations with representatives of Lowertown residents in the aftermath of the destruction of their neighbourhood during the vast urban renewal project of the 1960s. Pierre Benoit also oversees the implementation Ottawa’s first bilingualism policy, adopted in 1970. Since Pierre Benoit’s tenure, no francophone has been elected as the chief magistrate of Ottawa.