Gisèle Lalonde, who died late last month at age 89, was at various points in her life a schoolteacher, activist and mayor. But what she will be remembered for is her work to make life better for francophones in Ottawa and across the province.
The fight of her life began in 1997, when the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris decided to close some Ontario hospitals, including the Montfort Hospital, an Ottawa institution with a staff of bilingual doctors and nurses.
It was the only teaching hospital in Ontario that guaranteed services in French 24 hours a day. Opponents of the closing said merging it with another Ottawa-area hospital would water down or effectively destroy those French-language services.
A day after the announcement, there was a meeting at the hospital. Ms. Lalonde – who by this time was a well-known advocate for French-speaking people, a former school board trustee and former mayor of Vanier, Ont. – was chosen to lead the effort to save Montfort. On March 22, 1997, 10,000 people from francophone communities across Ontario gathered at the Ottawa Civic Center to listen to her and others speak.
“Montfort fermé jamais,” was the slogan. And, because of Ms. Lalonde, Montfort never closed.
She had already done much for Ontario francophones before the hospital fight. For many years, she was on the board of Ontario’s French-language public school boards association. During her time in that role, in 1982, she served on a provincial committee that advised Premier Bill Davis on ways of adding francophone representation to the province’s school boards.
Ms. Lalonde also helped start a French-language publishing house in Ottawa, Le Centre franco-ontarien de ressources pédagogiques, which still produces teaching material distributed in Canada and worldwide.
The Montfort battle was ultimately decided in court. In Lalonde v. Ontario, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the provincial government had failed “to take into account importance of francophone institutions as opposed to bilingual institutions for preservation of language and culture of Franco-Ontarians.”
The Ontario government decided not to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. The provincial minister of health, Tony Clement, went to Ottawa and made the announcement. It was five years after the initial decision to close Montfort.
Ronald Caza, an Ottawa-based lawyer who was a key member of Ms. Lalonde’s legal team, is still in awe of the victory.
“The court ruled that the province of Ontario cannot make decisions that deny the constitutional rights of the francophone minority,” he said.
“You cannot have a bigger win than what Gisèle Lalonde achieved. Gisèle made Canada a better country because she proved that linguistic minorities make us a distinct country, different from the United States.”
The court’s decision strengthened Montfort, which is today a thriving academic hospital. It has doubled in physical size, according to Mr. Caza, who is now chair of the Montfort Hospital Foundation.
Gisèle Deschamps was born in the French-speaking Ottawa suburb of Eastview – later named Vanier – in June of 1933. Her father, Ovila, was a war veteran who worked for the federal government, and her mother, Alice Gravelle, ran a small restaurant at the corner of Marier and Montfort in Eastview.
Gisele went to a French grade school, L’école Montfort. In high school, she was taught by an order of nuns, Les Filles de la Sagesse (the daughters of wisdom) who had founded the hospital. (St. Louis-Marie de Montfort is the patron saint of the nuns’ order, and that accounts for the prolific use of Montfort name in French-language Ottawa.)
Ms. Lalonde finished Grade 13 in English at Eastview High School, where she was the only woman in her class, then went to teacher’s college in Ottawa.
She began teaching at the Montfort School in Eastview. At the time, the area had its own school board. Later, when Ms. Lalonde went to teach in the Ottawa Separate Catholic system, she noticed a difference in quality between those schools and the ones she was used to.
“She saw that the schools in Ottawa had gymnasiums, libraries and art programs, and in Eastview there was none of that,” said Ginette Gratton, Ms. Lalonde’s niece. “That’s when she decided to run as a school trustee in Eastview, to work to improve the school system.”
Ms. Lalonde was elected in 1965, when she was 32. She was the only woman at her first meeting of the school trustees. She later told Ms. Gratton that she had decided to make an unspoken statement. “She dressed in a feminine way and wore an extravagant hat. Gisèle said this was the day she decided she was going to fight as a woman. It was very important for her.”
In the 1977 Ontario election, Ms. Lalonde decided to run as a Conservative in the provincial riding of Vanier.
“When my aunt ran for the provincial Vanier seat as a Conservative, she always repeated that she did not know the difference between Conservatives and Liberals,” Ms. Gratton told mourners at her aunt’s funeral on Aug. 4.
She lost the election to a Liberal, but it was a strategic victory for her, because the Conservatives were in power and had been for decades. Being a losing candidate for the winning side gave her influence over government policy when it came to French-language education in Ontario.
In many ways, what she achieved next was as important as her victory with the Montfort Hospital.
At the time, Ontario’s school boards were dominated by English-speaking trustees. Ms. Lalonde’s advocacy during the Davis administration helped create the French-language school board system that exists today.
“She left us a francophone community that today has more dignity,” Ms. Gratton said.
Ms. Lalonde continued to work for her community, and served as Vanier’s mayor from 1985 to 1991. (The city became part of Ottawa in 2001.) She was someone with a record of getting results, and politicians were careful to listen to her.
“Gisèle had such a smile that she disarmed those speaking with her,” Jim Watson, mayor of Ottawa, told mourners at Ms. Lalonde’s funeral. “But you did not stand in her way. The most frightening words in my office were: Gisèle Lalonde on line one.”
There is a high school in Ottawa named after her: École secondaire publique Gisèle-Lalonde. She was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2003, the citation stating in part: “Gisèle Lalonde has spent her life championing and promoting francophone society in Ontario.”
Ms. Lalonde leaves her three sons, Richard, André and Guy.