University of Ottawa, or the gamble of bilingualism

When it is founded in 1848, the College of Bytown is no different from other classical colleges of the time. Religious instructors teach Greek, Latin, religion and mathematics to young boys at the primary and secondary levels. The Oblates who run the College, however, have a particular concern associated with the population of this small logging town, where altercations between the French and Irish Canadians populations are numerous. The Oblates take the gamble of reducing tensions between the two linguistic groups by bringing them together in the same classrooms and delivering the same bilingual education program. English is the language of instruction in the morning, French in the afternoon.

This system is destabilized in 1874 when the institution, recently promoted to the rank of university, adopts a new, more science-oriented program. Thereafter, all courses are taught in English, except for French literature and religion. Undermined by the rise of imperialist sentiment after Confederation, the early bilingualism gives way to English unilingualism that lasts more than 25 years. According to historian Robert Choquette, “it is by design” that the congregation of the Oblates, who see English as “the way of the future,” puts an English face on the University of Ottawa.1

The issue is, however, far from resolved. In 1901, French-Canadian supporters blame the Irish “apostles” for English unilingualism at the institution. Despite increasing pressure for English-only education in Ontario, the University decides to return to its ideal of bilingualism, and gradually returns to French-language education. Accommodations for Anglophones who oppose the development do not calm the revolt of the Irish Oblates. When the General Council of the Congregation in Rome refuses to separate the two linguistic elements of the University, it is the last straw. A majority of the Irish Oblates left the University of Ottawa in 1915, along with many English-speaking students. On May 20, 1929, the Oblates announced the opening of a new English language college to be called St. Patrick’s. 

According to Choquette, “[t]he departure of the Irish Catholics in 1929 will not necessarily restore harmony in the institution, for the French Canadians themselves are divided on the question of language.”2 The University nevertheless persists with is bilingual agenda, with the support of other Anglophone groups. At the turn of the 1950s, the opening of newprograms in science, engineering and medicine once again undermine the institution’s ideal of bilingualism, which defends itself by arguing that it is impossible “for the moment” to establish true bilingualism. The University of Ottawa rectifies the situation with an increasingly varied selection of French programs after the 1965 expansion.

1 Robert Choquette, La foi gardienne de la langue en Ontario, 1900-1950, Montréal, Les Éditions Bellarmin, p. 166 (translated from the original).

2 Ibid, p. 197 (translated from the original).


Tabaret Hall, University of Ottawa, 1966.

Source: University of Ottawa, Archives of the University of Ottawa, AUO-PHO-NB_98-388.

Black and white photograph of about fifty cars parked in front of an imposing, four-storey, neoclassical-style building, with six monumental ionic columns, and a portico with a pediment.