The Ottawa Citizen

Tireless champion of language rights
Maverick rankled friends and foes over commitment to his cause

Don Butler

When you consider the life of Jean-Robert Gauthier, three things strike you — his contradictions, his courage and his rock-ribbed convictions.

Gauthier, who died Friday at age 80, was one of the most successful politicians Ottawa has known. He spent a dozen years as a school trustee and 32 years in Parliament as an MP and senator. He never tasted electoral defeat.

In seven straight elections between 1972 to 1994, he crushed all comers in Ottawa-Vanier. Yet within his own party, he was viewed as a maverick, and paid a price in thwarted ambition.

A chiropractor by profession, his patrician bearing hinted at a privileged background. But after his birth in 1929, his Lowertown family was so destitute that he and his sister were placed in an orphanage for several years.

They were eventually rescued by their grandfather, himself a former MP, a reversal of fortune that provided Gauthier with a private-school education.

There was “something almost intimidating” about Gauthier, says Graham Fraser, Canada’s commissioner of official languages. “He was so fiercely determined on the issues that he cared about that you would quail a bit.”

“People often were afraid to speak to him, because he gave an air of an authoritarian,” says former east-Ottawa Liberal MP Eugene Bellemare, whose wife was Gauthier’s cousin. “But he wasn’t. He was very open-minded and lots of fun.”

There was nothing contradictory about Gauthier’s unswerving commitment to bilingualism and the rights of Franco-Ontarians. It became the cause of his life.

“It just was a candle he never would let go of, and he turned it into a torch,” says Liberal Senator David Smith.

His passion for minority rights often landed him in controversy. In 1982, he voted against the Constitution Act and Charter of Rights because he didn’t think they did enough to protect minority language rights.

The decision infuriated his leader, Pierre Trudeau, and cost him his shot at a cabinet post. “It showed a huge amount of moral courage,” says Fraser.

Ironically, Gauthier was deeply involved in developing some of the language on linguistic rights that went into the Charter.

The courts have since given them an expansive interpretation, rather than the narrow one Gauthier feared when he cast his vote against patriation.

As a senator in 2003, Gauthier ignited a firestorm of criticism by complaining that restaurants operating on federal property were failing to provide bilingual menus.

A few months later he tabled a constitutional amendment to make the city of Ottawa officially bilingual, sparking another passionate debate.

Ottawa still isn’t officially bilingual, but the Ontario government revised the City of Ottawa Act in 2004 to require the city to have a policy on the use of English and French in city services.

As a school trustee in the 1960s, Gauthier fought for the creation of French-language high schools. Later, he was instrumental in establishing French-language school boards in Ontario.

In the 1990s, he provided critical support for the campaign to save Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital, then slated for closing. “He inspired another generation of activists and politicians to continue his fight,” says Senator Jim Munson.

One important achievement, says Fraser, occurred soon after his retirement from the Senate in 2004.

One of his private member’s bills, amending the Official Languages Act, was approved by both houses of Parliament. It legally obliges the federal government and its departments and agencies to take positive steps to develop minority language communities throughout Canada.

Gauthier should be remembered as a great parliamentarian, Fraser says, because he accomplished so much while maintaining his “sometimes spiky independence” from the party line. “He paid a price for that, but I don’t think he ever regretted it.”

Gauthier’s final decade was plagued by ill health. After a trip to Africa in 1996, he nearly died from vasculitis, a disorder of unknown origin characterized by the inflammatory destruction of blood vessels.

The illness eventually forced him into a wheelchair. As well, a side effect from treatment left him unable to hear.

“It was a double loss for him, because he was a serious music-lover,” Fraser says. “But it didn’t slow him up.”

Until his mandatory retirement from the Senate in 2004, Gauthier continued to appear in the Red Chamber in his wheelchair.

Bellemare says Gauthier enjoyed being wheeled around Parliament Hill. “I kidded him a lot. I’d start running and say, ‘Maybe we’ll get stopped for speeding.’ ”

After he lost his hearing, Gauthier made sure he got the support he needed to follow Senate debates. “He became just as determined in fighting for the rights of the deaf as he had ever been for the rights of francophone minorities,” says Fraser.

Late in his life, honours rolled in. He was made a member of the Order of Canada and an officer of France’s Légion d’honneur. A French-language elementary school in Barrhaven that opened in 2006 bears his name.

Tributes poured in Friday on news of his death, from Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, the Montfort Hospital and Mauril Bélanger, who succeeded Gauthier as MP for Ottawa-Vanier in 1994.

Gauthier is survived by his wife Monique, his sons Jean-François, Pierre and Vincent, and his daughter Nathalie.