Liberal committee chair wants to make City of Ottawa officially bilingual

Liberal MP Denis Paradis says Canada's national capital should be officially bilingual, so he wants to push the cause when MPs return next week.

Late Ottawa MP Mauril Bélanger had pushed to make city officially bilingual

Liberal MP Denis Paradis says he would like the House of Commons committee he chairs to explore the idea of making Ottawa an officially bilingual city. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Liberal MP Denis Paradis thinks it sounds obvious enough: Canada is an officially bilingual country, so its national capital should be too.

"I do think that it would be a good thing that Ottawa shows that there are two official languages in the country," Paradis, who represents the Quebec riding of Brome-Missisquoi, said in an interview.

That's why he would like to raise the idea with colleagues on the House of Commons standing committee on official languages, which he chairs, when MPs return to Parliament Hill next week.

The notion of making Ottawa officially bilingual — which Paradis says would not involve changing any federal laws — is one that has come and gone and come again over the decades.

It has sparked passionate debates between those who want stronger protections for the rights of the minority French-speaking community in Ottawa and those who fear it would cost too much and further restrict access to jobs in a city where bilingualism is already a frequent requirement for a job in the federal government.

Paradis said he was inspired to discuss the proposal with the committee this fall in part because it was long championed by Mauril Belanger, a Liberal MP from Ottawa who died this summer following a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Former Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger was a champion of bilingualism and Franco-Ontarian rights during his time in office. He died last month after a battle with ALS. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Ottawa mayor says city is already bilingual

The City of Ottawa has had a bilingualism policy since 2001, which says the municipality recognizes both English and French as having the same rights, status and privileges.

It's the reason why Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has long opposed officially changing the status, arguing the city is already bilingual.

A group called Movement for an Officially Bilingual Capital of Canada wants the municipal council to ask the Ontario legislature to change the City of Ottawa Act so that it officially recognizes the bilingual character and status of the city as the national capital, which they argue would essentially enshrine the status quo in law.

Added Alain Dupuis, vice-president of the Association des communautes francophones d'Ottawa, one of the organizations behind the proposal: "We are not asking for a federal-type officially bilingual city where you would have to have X number of jobs designated or reserved. Let's just make sure that future generations can enjoy the same level of services that we have now."

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has been steadfast in saying the city is already bilingual, even if the declaration has not been made official.

Beth Trudeau, member of a group called Canadians for Language Fairness, nonetheless strongly opposed any change.

"Ask (Ottawa residents) if they (want) such an unnecessary added expense to their tax bill," she wrote in an email, pointing out the call for a bilingual Ottawa does not include bringing bilingualism to Gatineau, Que., the other city that makes up the National Capital Region.

New Democrat MP Francois Choquette, vice-chair of the official languages committee, said he would support Paradis in his efforts, but added he really wants to hear from Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, who is also minister responsible for official languages.

"She is the one who should be showing leadership on wanting to have Ottawa be bilingual."

Joly has decided to stay out of it, with her office saying Thursday that while official languages and supporting minority communities are a priority for the Liberal government, any decisions about bilingualism in Ottawa belong to the municipal and Ontario governments.