By Marc Gauthier
All her life, Gisèle Lalonde has been concerned with advancing the cause of Ontario’s francophones — so much so that she was never able to fulfill her own dream of going to university. Now, after 60 years of fighting tirelessly for her people’s rights, she is receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa.
“I never would have imagined this would happen. It’s very exciting. People have known me mostly for my work with SOS Montfort, but that was 14 years ago. I guess I haven’t been forgotten,” said Lalonde, in her characteristic strong voice.
In fact, it’s hard to forget the role that Lalonde, from the old city of Eastview (Vanier), has played in her community and in francophone Ontario in general since the early 1950s.
First female francophone mayor in Ontario.
Founder of the Association française des municipalités de l’Ontario.
Fighter for French-language school boards in Ontario.
Embodiment of Montfort Hospital’s fight for survival.
Founder of the Centre franco-ontarien de ressources pédagogiques (CFORP).
Lalonde has been all of these.
She feels the centre is her greatest achievement. “At the time, we had nothing, absolutely nothing, as far as books go. Everything was from outside the province. We even used English books in our schools.
“We brought in the best teachers in their fields from all over Ontario and started to produce pedagogical material for the Franco-Ontarian community. Today, CFORP books are exported everywhere, to France, Belgium, Africa,” Lalonde is proud to say.
Education has never ceased to be Lalonde’s cause, one she has fought through many provincial organizations. Her tireless work so that francophones could manage their own schools was memorable. In 1984, the Ontario government named her to head the Council for Franco-Ontarian Affairs, which gave her privileged access to the premier. This allowed her to argue, among other things, for the creation of an educational TV channel for francophones, now TFO.
“Montfort closed? Never!”
But for the general public, Gisèle Lalonde always will be the woman who fought a fierce battle in 1997 to prevent the closure of the Montfort Hospital, the only French-language teaching hospital in the province. Who can forget her famous, heartfelt cry, “Montfort closed? Never!”
After five years of effort, both in the media and the courts, the SOS Montfort movement that she led succeeded in keeping the hospital open. The fight was so intense that when it concluded, in 2002, Lalonde was utterly drained.
Lalonde’s name has become synonymous with the struggles of francophones in Ontario.
In 1951, after receiving her diploma from the University of Ottawa’s École normale, Gisèle Lalonde began her career as an elementary school teacher. From then on, her involvement in the community was uninterrupted, first in the schools, becoming the first executive director of the Association française des conseils scolaires de l’Ontario. Then, in 1985, she became mayor of Vanier, which led to her establishing and then heading the Association française des municipalités de l’Ontario, representing the province’s French-language municipalities.
Wherever she has been, Gisèle Lalonde has left her mark, thanks to her legendary community involvement — with the Scouts, the Daughters of Isabella, seniors and her church, always seeking one thing: a flourishing Franco-Ontarian community.
As a pioneer, she has faced many challenges while bringing up three children, all with the unfailing support of her spouse of 62 years, Gilles Lalonde. “I’ve worked very hard but I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve done,” she said.
Activist, educator, community leader and fervent advocate for Franco-Ontarian rights, Gisèle Lalonde has earned widespread recognition over her career, as well as many awards. She has received 37 medals, from across Canada, from France, even from the Vatican.
Some of her honours include induction into the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario and France’s Legion of Honour, as well as honorary doctorates from Saint Paul University in Ottawa and Laurentian University in Sudbury.
“All I’ve done is serve my people,” writes the indefatigable Lalonde in her appropriately titled autobiography, Jusqu’au bout! (All the Way!).
Gisèle Lalonde will receive her honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa during convocation for the Faculty of Arts and Saint Paul University. She is one of nine outstanding University of Ottawa honorary doctorate recipients this spring.