Franco-Ontarien community activist Gisèle Lalonde passed away on the evening of Tuesday, July 26. She was 89.
Throughout her life, Lalonde advocated for Franco-Ontarian causes and community projects, like the S.O.S. Montfort campaign that saved Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital.
In 1997, the Progressive Conservative government of then-premier Mike Harris announced its intention to close the Montfort Hospital as a part of their government-wide cost cutting campaign.
The Montfort Hospital was founded in 1953 to serve the sizeable French speaking population of the Ottawa region, and the news that the government intended to close this hospital ignited a movement amongst Franco-Ontarians that the Canadian Encyclopedia credits with being a “key moment in the affirmation of Franco-Ontarian identity.”
The leadership of the S.O.S. Montfort campaign fell to Gisèle Lalonde who at this point in her career had already made a big splash as a politician and community activist in the Franco-Ontarian community.
Elected Mayor of the municipality of Vanier in 1985, she founded and was the first president of the Association française des municipalités d’Ontario (AFMO). In a tribute to Lalonde in the Ottawa region French newspaper Le Droit, her nephew Denis Gratton remembered that mayoral campaign and how his aunt was always full of life.
“I was 25-years-old. I saw no pleasure in walking the streets of Vanier for an entire evening distributing “vote Gisèle”. But I accepted. And the next day I went back! Simply because Aunt Gisèle had found a way to make this task fun,” reads a translated excerpt from Gratton’s article.
AFMO is an association of Ontario municipalities who have significant Franco-Ontarian populations designed to advocate for French municipal government services and interests. It now boasts over 40 member municipalities.
In a statement released in the wake of the news of Lalonde’s passing, current AFMO president Nicole Fortier Levesque praised her as a trailblazer.
“Ms. Lalonde was a role model, an inspiring, determined woman and her undoubted perseverance enabled her to carry out great projects and win her struggles with great success to ensure the well-being of all,” reads a statement by Levesque, translated by rabble.
Lalonde’s perseverance saw the S.O.S. Montfort campaign triumph after five years of legal battles and political activism.
In a statement to rabble.ca, Montfort Hospital chairperson Carl Nappert said that the hospital was mourning her loss. The statement reads:
“It is with great sadness that we learned of the death of Mrs. Gisèle Lalonde. We offer our most sincere condolences to her loved ones, her entourage, the people who collaborated with her, and all the people for whom she was dear. Today, the entire Montfort family is in mourning. Mrs. Lalonde was a great lady and we owe her a lot.”
In tribute to Lalonde, the hospital setup a book of condolences for members of the public to sign near their front entrance by the Monument de la Francophonie. In the space of about six hours on Saturday, July 30 more than 100 people came out to sign the book and give thanks to her.
Lalonde was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2003, and the Order of Ontario in 2006. L’école secondaire publique Gisèle Lalonde located in the Orleans neighbourhood of Ottawa is named in her honour.
Duncan Cameron, President Emeritus of rabble praised Lalonde for her incalculable impact on Canadian civil society.
“Gisèle had a huge impact in every sector where she played a role and there were many. One of the greatest civil society leaders in Canadian history her contribution to health care and education was immense,” he said in a statement.
Lalonde was laid to rest on Thursday, August 4 after a ceremony celebrating her life at l’église Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson attended the ceremony and spoke to gathered family and friends, saying that Lalonde was an extraordinary woman.