S.O.S. Montfort Mural
158, McArthur Avenue. Artist: Marie-Hélène Lajoie (2009)
This painting illustrates the remarkable demonstration of S.O.S. Montfort FERMÉ! JAMAIS! The painting pays tribute to the solidarity and determination of all Francophones who fought for their righs to have health services in their language.
Five important figures of the period are shown in the foreground of this mural: Gérald Savoie, Michelle de Courville Nicol, Gisèle Lalonde, Michel Gratton and Ronald Caza.
Montfort Hospital was established in 1953, thanks to the persistent efforts of the French-speaking residents of the community, including several individuals and organizations in Eastview hoping to provide hospital care and health services in French. Initially, the religious order of the Daughters of Wisdom was given the responsibility of managing the hospital and ensuring its smooth operation.
Although bilingual services were introduced beginning in 1984, Montfort Hospital remained a French-speaking work place, with more than 250 beds. Furthermore, it played an important educational role within the Franco-Ontarian community, since it provided training for French-speaking medical students through its partnership with the University of Ottawa. It was the only completely Francophone hospital in Ontario.
Major expansion projects were undertaken in 2003, and as a result the hospital doubled in size. Moreover, Montfort Hospital began serving as a Canadian Forces health service centre.
Since the 1950s, then, Montfort Hospital has become an essential institution for all Franco-Ontarians. It symbolizes both the vitality and the independence of this community. Its survival as an institution was threatened, however, in the 1990s, when a health services restructuring plan provoked a powerful protest movement within Ontario’s French-speaking population.
Montfort Hospital in 1956. City of Ottawa Archives, Andrews-Newton Collection
Filles de la Sagesse in Montfort Hospital. City of Ottawa Archives, Andrews-Newton Collection
In March 1996, Ontario’s provincial government established a Health Services Restructuring Commission for the purpose of examining and assessing hospital operations throughout the province. In February 1997, the commission published its preliminary report.
In it, the commission refused to recognize the uniqueness and distinctness of Montfort Hospital, which was characterized as a bilingual hospital like the Ottawa General Hospital. The commission recommended that the hospital stop providing a full range of health care services, and instead merge with other hospitals in the region in order to facilitate the provision of services in French. The type of restructuring proposed by the commission would eventually have led to the closure of Montfort Hospital as it was, and to the loss of many health services made available to the community in French.
As soon as the commission’s report was made public, a wave of protest swept through the province, denouncing the loss of this Franco-Ontarian institution. Gisèle Lalonde, former mayor of Vanier, presided over the protest. The daily newspaper Le Droit encouraged people to sign a petition denouncing the eventual closure of Montfort Hospital. The petition gathered a total of over 125,000 individual signatures, and it was sent to the region’s provincial representatives.
Dubbed S.O.S. Montfort, this wave of protest reached its peak on March 22, 1997, when a momentous gathering was held at the Civic Centre in Ottawa, and broadcast live throughout the country by the RDI network. This major event brought together more than 10,000 Francophones and Francophiles from all over the province, including many students and young people bent on opposing the closure of Montfort Hospital. Singers, artists and politicians alike stood up and voiced their support for the hospital, condemning one and all the Conservative government of Mike Harris, which refused to intervene in order to save the hospital.
Addressing this major historical gathering, the protest movement’s president declared to those attending the rally that Canadians were seeing a community that took a stand, a strong community, a united community, a community very much alive, adding that this 22nd day of March 1997 would go down in history as the Great Gathering, and that they should remember this great day because no one could ever take it away from them.
To this day, the great gathering that was held in 1997 remains, for the entire Franco-Ontarian population, a powerful symbol of the energetic defence of their rights. The avenue which leads to the entrance to the hospital has been renamed March 22 in memory of this historical event.
Following the huge rally that had been organized, the commission decided to review its recommendations concerning Montfort Hospital. Feeling that the new recommendations were just as unacceptable as a means of meeting the needs of Franco-Ontarians, S.O.S. Montfort turned to the courts in order to defend the hospital.
In its landmark decision following Lalonde v. Ontario (Health Services Restructuring Commission), the Ontario Court underlined, on November 29, 1999, Montfort Hospital’s unique and distinct character in Ontario as far as the province’s French-speaking minority was concerned, and prevented the hospital’s closure by the provincial government. On the basis of the French Language Services Act, the Court of Appeal for Ontario confirmed this decision two years later, thus ensuring the hospital’s survival.
S.O.S. Montfort made it possible to bring together all the people in Ontario who speak French in order to focus on a topic of common interest. The event was a major historical milestone for Franco-Ontarians, and will forever live on in the collective memory of this community.