Capital News Online

© Nathan Caddell
Amidst the celebrations for Ottawa 2017 looms a debate about the city's bilingualism. © Nathan Caddell

Amidst the celebrations for Ottawa 2017 looms a debate about the city’s bilingualism. © Nathan Caddell

With less than a year to go before Canada 150th birthday, Bilingual Ottawa is lobbying city councillors to change the provincial City of Ottawa Act to designate the city as officially bilingual for 2017.

The City’s Debate

According to Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, Canada’s capital is already bilingual, as stated in its bylaws. City programs and services are currently offered in both official languages, says an email from Watson’s press secretary Livia Belcea.

Members of Bilingual Ottawa agree that the city already offers adequate services in both languages—they just want to make sure it stays that way.

“Policy can change very rapidly and at the whim of the city council,” group member Lucien Bradet says. “That’s taking a chance with the future.”  Bradet is CEO of the Canadian Council on Africa, a not-for-profit organization promoting economic development.

Mayor Jim Watson insists that Ottawa is already a bilingual city. © Nathan Caddell

Mayor Jim Watson insists that Ottawa is already a bilingual city. © Nathan Caddell

Bilingual Ottawa, now several years running, is comprised of other francophone associations in the city, and they garner support from local, bilingual institutions such as the University of Ottawa.

Bradet says designating the city as bilingual in the provincial legislation will protect  the equal status for both languages and the bilingual services already offered, including on the city’s websites and signage.


© Nathan Caddell

“It’s so small, people think it’s big,” he says.

One of the group’s supporters, Rideau-Vanier Coun. Matthieu Fleury, says he’ll formally bring the proposal to council once more than two-thirds, or 17 of the 24 councillors have already indicated support. With some councillors yet to meet with Bilingual Ottawa, the group isn’t sure how many currently support the proposal. Fleury says there’s more convincing to do.

Percentage of Bilingual Residents in Ottawa by Ward, 2011
This map shows the percentage of bilingual residents in Ottawa by ward according to the 2011 Canada Census data. The darker the shade of green, the higher rates of bilingualism in that ward.

Jobs and Cost Concerns

Kanata-North Coun. Marianne Wilkinson says she doesn’t support making changes to Ottawa’s bilingual status because the city can’t afford increasing the current levels of services.

“If you go towards official bilingualism, everything has to be done in both languages,” Wilkinson says. “They keep saying that’s not what they’re asking,” Wilkinson says, but the title “official bilingualism” makes her nervous.

For example, Ottawa Fire Services isn’t fully bilingual, according to Fleury, and not all committee meetings are translated into French, Wilkinson says.

Wilkinson says she’s heard concerns from her constituents that non-bilingual residents will have trouble finding work.

Fleury says the amendment would have no effect on the city’s budget or job availability, although he’s heard some of the same concerns from his own constituents. Some have told him they oppose the proposal because they don’t like the federal system—but Fleury says the municipal policy is different.

Councillor Mathieu Fleury knows Ottawa needs to do more for bilingual residents

Councillor Mathieu Fleury knows Ottawa needs to do more for bilingual residents. © Nathan Caddell

Federal bilingualism guarantees the right to public education in French or English where the numbers warrant it, service in either language at central government offices, and that parliamentary proceedings be translated into both languages.

But because the proposal is meant to protect the city’s bilingual services already in place, Bradet says Bilingual Ottawa sees municipal bilingualism as mostly symbolic. Canada’s approaching 150th anniversary is just “good timing,” he says.

The Job Doesn’t End at City Hall

The proposal doesn’t only concern municipal politicians. The act Bilingual Ottawa seeks to amend is under the jurisdiction of the Ontario government, so the amendment would have to be decided on by the province.

Before making changes, the province would conduct a review of the legislation, Ontario’s manager of municipal governance policy Sarah Van Exan says. The review can take any length of time, Van Exan says, meaning it might already be too late to meet Bilingual Ottawa’s goal of 2017.

Legislation reviews can be prompted by associations, civil servants, or issues being raised in the media, Van Exan says. In this case, Bilingual Ottawa hopes for Ottawa’s city council to request the amendment.

The federal government, too, has a stake in the proposal’s outcome. “Our Government believes in the importance of promoting the use of our two official languages in Canadian society,” Department of Canadian Heritage spokeswoman Geneviève Dubois-Richard says. “Our Government is following with interest the discussion on bilingualism for the City of Ottawa.”

Cities in New Brunswick are the only municipalities designated as officially bilingual by provincial legislation. New Brunswick as a whole is bilingual, meaning services from all three levels of government must be offered in English and French. If Bilingual Ottawa’s proposal passes, municipal services will remain mostly bilingual, as they are today, and the change won’t affect provincial services.

Support for the Cause

Bilingual Ottawa is using a Canada-wide survey done in March of this year by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages to give its proposal a federal appeal. Seventy-three per cent of Canadians polled online and 87 per cent polled over the phone said Canada’s capital should be recognized as officially bilingual. The survey, done by Environics Focus Canada, has a margin of error between three and four per cent.

Given this support, Bradet says the proposal isn’t asking a lot. “It’s something that should become a reality, and something that the little Canadians and the people of Ottawa support.”

Fleury says the city’s enrolment in French programs and French immersion shows an appetite for bilingualism.

French and English programming at publicly funded secondary schools in Ottawa

This map pin points secondary schools from the four publicly funded school boards in Ottawa and shows their language distribution. English-only schools are red, French-only schools are green, schools that offer French Immersion programs (and may or may not also have Extended French) are yellow, and schools with an Extended French Program are purple.

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