Mayor Matthew Shoemaker and council undoubtedly had the best of intentions when they voted to apologize to our francophone community for what was referred to as the English-only resolution the council of the day adopted in 1990.
However, since 34 years have passed, I see the apology as somewhat misguided. All it really does is reopen a wound that for all intents and purposes had long been closed. And to what end?
The resolution in which the 1990 council voted to declare English as the official language of the city was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1994 and in 1999 council decided to place a notation beside the original resolution stating: “This resolution was struck down by the courts on June 30, 1994, and therefore has no effect.”
And in 2010 then Sault Ste. Marie Mayor John Rowswell apologized to French-Canadians across the country for the resolution.
The apology was, of course, late in coming and should have made special mention of our francophone community. It also should have come from council in its entirety, rather than just from the mayor.
However, while I still can’t see why the present mayor and council would take another run at it 34 years after the fact, this is part of what the mayor said in his remarks to council, which was carried in both English and French:
“City council made a mistake in 1990.
“We forgot our history. We created conflict between our francophone residents and the community at-large.
“It was a mistake that had lasting impacts on our city as it relates to federal and provincial services, which moved down the highway to Sudbury or other communities further afield.
“It is without doubt that the francophone community appreciated the apology given by Mayor Rowswell in 2010 and the raising of the Franco-Ontarian flag for the first time at city hall in 2015 under Mayor Provenzano, but there remains unfinished work to repair the relationship between the city and its French residents. “It is my hope, and I believe it to be the hope of all of council, that the resolution before us today will be the start of a new chapter in the positive impact that francophones have and continue to play in our community.”
Nice words and while I might not think they are necessary, they might play well with our francophone community.
Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t for a moment condone what council did in 1990. I considered it abhorrent.
The lead of my column after the resolution passed read: “I suppose you could say in making fools of themselves they made fools of us all.”
Indeed we became the subject of ridicule across the country, from anglophones as well as francophones, charges being flung in our direction that we were racists, bigots and rednecks.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said the move was deplorable; Ontario Premier David Peterson was angry and disappointed; Liberal Leader John Turner saw it as a tendency of bigotry; editorialists wrote that it was scandalous.
We all took the heat and I suppose in a way we deserved it.
After all, council was stampeded into passing the resolution by a petition presented to it bearing more than 25,000 signatures collected by the Sault Ste. Marie Association for the Preservation of English Language Rights, a group headed by Richard Pearman. It obviously had the majority of the community behind it.
That became obvious from some of the calls we at The Sault Star, of which I was editor at the time, received. Although some were favourable of the paper’s stand, which was against that taken by council, others, I wrote at the time, were downright nasty.
Some criticized the paper’s coverage of SAPELR, claiming we were pandering to the French. One woman said we wouldn’t print letters backing council; one man said if we wanted to support French we should publish a French paper; Another, after I participated in Peter Gzowski’s Morningside show on CBC radio, said I had no right to criticize council on national radio.
A few subscribers cancelled the paper,
All this and yet the Sault was not the first to adopt a resolution declaring English as a community’s official language. That fell to Tarbutt Additional, its council passing such a resolution four months previous to the one passed here.
No one batted an eye on that one. It even escaped us at the paper, even though Tarbutt Additional is in Algoma.
The Sault got whacked because the Sault Star published the fact the resolution was coming before council and, because it was the first fairly large centre to make such a move, that attracted mainstream news media from outside.
Thunder Bay passed a similar resolution a short time later but seemed to escape the heat that fell on the Sault. It seemed that being the second major centre to make such a move didn’t count.
The resolutions from the outset, although not considered illegal at the time, were unnecessary.
They were against Bill 8, the French Language Services Act which conferred on Ontario residents with a francophone background the right to communicate in French with any head or central office of a government agency or institution of the Legislature.
Passed with the support of the three major political parties in the province, it did not affect municipalities. A municipality or a local board as defined in the Municipal Affairs Act was excluded from the regulations.
Our council, led by then mayor Joe Fratesi, just didn’t seem to understand, passing the resolution to make English the official language of the city by a 11-2 vote,. Only Councillors Harry Hurdon and Tom Angus stood tall in voting against it.
The Star pushed against the resolution in an editorial and editorial page editor, columnist Linda Richardson and I wrote against it both before and after its passage, predicting we in the Sault would be the subject of anger, jokes and ridicule across the country.
We took no satisfaction from being proved right.