Gisèle Lalonde, a hero from Ottawa’s francophone community who oversaw the rescue of Montfort Hospital in the 1990s, has died aged 89.
The hospital confirmed her death on Wednesday and said the Montfort family was in mourning.
“Gisèle was a wonderful lady and we owe her a lot. We will remember her energy, good humor and infectious smile,” the hospital said in a statement on social media.
Lalonde was born on June 28, 1933 in Eastview, which later became the city of Vanier, a municipality she would lead as mayor between 1985 and 1991.
When Mike Harris’ progressive conservative provincial government announced in 1997 that Montfort Hospital was on the chopping block, the French-speaking community mobilized and Lalonde emerged as its vocal leader.
SOS Montfort was born and Lalonde was in the national spotlight, opposing the provincial decision with a crowd of supporters vying for the protection of the Eastern Hospital.
“We had to demonstrate from the outset that we were with the hospital and that we weren’t going to let it take off,” Lalonde said in an interview with the Citizen as part of the newspaper’s Capital Builders series.
“To make ourselves heard, we had to fight from here. And Toronto would listen because we would fight so hard they would hear the noise in Toronto.”
SOS Montfort fought the county in court and won. The group’s victory was confirmed in 2002, when the Ontario government announced it would not appeal to the Supreme Court.
Ottawa lawyer Ronald Caza teamed up with SOS Montfort to win the legal battle and save the hospital.
“Gisèle is bigger than life,” Caza said in an interview. “She had to be able to be on top of her all the time, and she was.”
Caza said Lalonde received a memorable phone call after she defeated the Ontario government in a tough legal battle over the hospital.
“Prime Minister Mike Harris called and congratulated her and told her how impressed he was. It was pretty amazing, everything she accomplished,” Caza said.
“The most important thing about the whole Montfort saga was that the message that the (provincial government) sent out was, ‘It’s not worth the effort you put in every day to preserve your language and culture,’” Caza said.
“(Lalonde) had to convince the Franco-Ontarians that they had to keep making that effort to preserve their language and their culture or it would be gone.”
Caza added: “Canada is a stronger country because of what Gisèle Lalonde did in Montfort.”
Lalonde also advocated French Ontario education. A secondary school in Orléans bears her name.
She co-founded the Center franco-ontarien de ressources pedagogies in 1974 and was executive director of the Association Française des Conseils Scolaires between 1980 and 1981.
Organizations advocating for francophones pointed to Lalonde as their leading influence.
“Gisèle Lalonde was a very inspiring woman. She was a woman who was very humble and who worked with all her heart to ensure basic rights for the French-speaking community,” said Soukaina Boutiyeb, president of the Association des Communautés Francophones d’Ottawa.
“For me, as a female citizen who speaks in French and can access Hôpital Monfort and have my services in French, it’s because of her work,” Boutiyeb said.
Lalonde was always on hand to ensure fair access to services for the French-speaking community and to join the fight to protect residents’ rights.
Boutiyeb said Lalonde again helped rally support to protect francophone services after the Progressive Conservatives formed the provincial government in 2018, including the government’s original plan to cancel a francophone university.
Lalonde was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2004. In 2005 she was made a Member of the Order of Ontario. She obtained several honorary degrees from universities.
On Wednesday, the City of Ottawa dropped flags at half-mast at City Hall and the Community Service Center in Vanier.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said Lalonde’s death is “a tremendous loss to our city and our country.”
“I have interacted with Ms. Lalonde on many occasions and I always came away feeling that she adored Vanier and that the community adored her even more,” Watson said.
Ottawa-Vanier MP Mona Fortier said she could still hear Lalonde’s battle cry, “Montfort, fermé, jamais!” (“Montfort, closed, never!”).
Fortier said Lalonde inspired her to run for political office.
“She will continue to inspire me to make my community better and more equal,” Fortier said in a written statement.
“Madame Lalonde, you will be in our hearts forever. And we will never forget to protect our assets,” Fortier said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also paid tribute to Lalonde, writing: “The French-speaking community is stronger because of her efforts, and her passing is an extraordinary loss.”