The case for a truly bilingual Ottawa

January 26, 2017

Published in Centretown Buzz on January 19, 2017

by Patrick Ladouceur and Rachael Manion

Bilingualism in Ottawa? Sounds like a familiar debate. This debate has been more active than ever in recent months with several organizations, including the Centretown Community Health Centre (CCHC) and Somerset West Community Health Centre (SWCHC), supporting the initiative.

The interest in Ottawa as a bilingual city dates back to the 1970s. In fact, the city’s #BilingualOttawa initiative is part of an effort to officially recognize Ottawa’s bilingual character, which is entrenched in the City of Ottawa Act of 1999. Furthermore, the specific approach that is proposed for the city – a different approach to that taken by the federal government – aims to protect the city’s existing bilingualism policy by incorporating it into its bilingualism bylaw.

This approach is not expected to add any extra costs to the city. Making the policy officially part of the legal fabric of the city will help to ensure that French-language services provided by the City of Ottawa will be sustainable and will recognize the equal status of both of our official languages in municipal services.

Some of you may be surprised to learn that the city is not officially bilingual. Why is this approach being proposed and why should we be supporting it?

Although the issue of official bilingualism in Ottawa has made headlines in recent months, it is not a new debate. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1970 highlighted in its report the importance of granting Ottawa the status of an official bilingual city. The report emphasized the fact that, as the nation’s capital, Ottawa symbolizes the whole country and therefore should express as accurately as possible the values of the whole country. The Commission recommended that as the capital city of a bilingual country, English and French should have equal status in Ottawa and that all services should be accessible in both official languages. (Volume Five of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which focuses on the capital city, can be found online.)

Ottawa is one of the only capitals in the world that does not represent the bilingualism of its country. For example, the Belgian capital Brussels recognizes official bilingualism despite the fact that only a minority of Flemish- speaking citizens live in the municipal periphery. Nevertheless, in 1989, the city chose to adopt the status of a bilingual city to ensure equality and respect towards the country’s two official languages and to give a voice to the minority language in the national capital.

The #BilingualOttawa initiative conducted a survey in partnership with the Nanos research firm and concluded that 72 percent of Ottawans (Anglophones and Francophones) supported an official bilingualism initiative as long as there was “no extra cost to taxpayers in Ottawa and no impact in terms of job loss” (see ottawavillebilingue. ca for more information). Similarly, 85 percent of young Ottawans between 18 and 29 years old are in support of this initiative. Another interesting statistic is that 68 percent of Ottawa residents – and 78 percent of young Ottawans – “believe that the city becoming officially bilingual would have a positive impact on the environment for people to learn English and French.”

Providing city services in both official languages will increase Ottawans’ access to services and improve civic engagement. Access to services is important for a healthy community. A healthy city is an accessible city.

This column is a collaboration between the Centretown and Somerset West Community Health Centres (CHCs). They provide a full range of health and social services to individuals and families. Through leadership and support, they foster the active participation of individuals and groups in a common effort to build healthier communities.