February 24, 1997, is a dark day in Ottawa Francophone history. It is the day when the Ontario Health Services Restructuring Commission announces the closure of the Hôpital Montfort. “I heard the news on Radio-Canada, on Ce soir, hosted by Michel Picard. I couldn’t believe it! It was almost unbelievable, because Montfort has existed for 43 years,”1 recalls Gisèle Lalonde, former Mayor of Vanier, who takes the helm of S.O.S. Montfort. This group engages in a fierce struggle to save the only Francophone university hospital west of Quebec.
The announcement sends a shockwave through Ottawa’s Francophone community. It cannot believe that the “Common Sense Revolution” announced by the Harris Government to redress public finances could lead to a decision with such serious consequences for Franco-Ontarians.
The community mobilizes rapidly. Just one month after the announcement, on March 22, one of the most significant rallies in the history of French Ontario takes places at the Ottawa Civic Centre. People come from all over the province to demonstrate their attachment to Montfort. The next day, Le Droit publishes a very rare Sunday edition devoted to this historic event, with the daily’s whole editorial team getting down to work. “An emotionally charged crowd raises the roof of the City Centre to save the Hôpital Montfort,”2 declares Le Droit, on page A3. “More than 10,000 Franco-Ontarians made a date with history (...) ‘Never!’ they repeated. ‘Never!’ The Franco-Ontarian community will not allow the closure of the Hôpital Montfort, its hospital,” reports Denis Gratton.
Despite the pressure, the Government of Ontario refuses to back down, claiming that Franco-Ontarians can access equally high-quality French services at the Ottawa General Hospital. Recourse to the courts becomes the best option, and lawyer Ronald Caza is hired to defend the Montfort case. It is officially recorded in the judicial records as Lalonde v. Health Services Restructuring Commission (Ontario).
The case is heard by three Ontario Divisional Court judges in June 1999. They render a unanimous decision some six months later: “We find the existence of such a hospital centre is crucial to the preservation of the minority Franco-Ontarian culture as well as to the continued provision of adequate francophone medical services and medical training.”3 In Montfort and throughout French Canada, euphoria reigns. But two weeks later, the French-Canadian community is disillusioned to learn that the Harris Government is appealing the decision.
The Ontario Court of Appeal hearings are held in May 2001. The Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal, Roy McMurtry, agrees to the CBC’s request to have it broadcast live, considering the importance of the case for the Franco-Ontarian community. The decision of the Court of Appeal is rendered in December: the Hôpital Montfort is “essential to the Franco-Ontarian community” and must be protected.
In February 2002, the Government of Ontario announces that it accepts the Court of Appeal’s judgment. Gisèle Lalonde remembers her feelings when she heard the news: “This time it was true. Montfort closed – never! We had won. We were not born to get the short end of the stick.”4
1 Marco Dubé, De Mahé à Summerside. Entretiens, Ottawa, Le Nordir, p. 123 (translated from the original).
2 Denis Gratton, “10 000 fois Jamais!” Le Droit, March 23, 1997, p. A3 (translated from the original).
3 Lalonde v. Health Services Restructuring Commission (Ontario), Divisional Court judgment. November 29, 1999.
4 Michel Gratton, Gisèle Lalonde. Grande dame de l’Ontario français, Ottawa, Centre franco-ontarien de ressources pédagogiques, 2011, p. 81 (translated from the original).
S.O.S. Montfort demonstration in the streets of Ottawa. Madeleine Meilleur (Municipal Councillor, Vanier), Gisèle Lalonde (President, S.O.S. Montfort), Mauril Bélanger (Liberal MP, Ottawa-Vanier) and in the background, Bernard Grandmaître (father of Bill 8). Photo: Étienne Morin, Le Droit.
University of Ottawa, CRCCF, Fonds Le Droit (C71), Ph92-13-160397montfort-18.