Mauril Bélanger

Mauril Adrien Jules Bélanger, politician (born 15 June 1955 in Mattawa, Ontario; died 16 August 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario). Member of Parliament for the riding of Ottawa-Vanier from 1995 to 2015, he was successively Minister responsible for Official Languages, Associate Minister of National Defence, Minister responsible for Democratic Reform and Minister for Internal Trade. Bélanger was especially known for his campaign to rewrite the words to the national anthem, “O Canada,” to remove sexist language.

Mauril Bélanger
Bélanger during the Public Forum Open mike / \u00ab \u00c0 micro ouvert \u00bb, Ottawa, October 21, 2010

Education and Early Career

Mauril Bélanger was the second born in a family of five children. He attended high school in North Bay, in a French school 60 kilometres from his family home in Mattawa, a small lumber town located in mid-northern Ontario where the Mattawa River and the Ottawa River meet. Bélanger then studied English literature at the University of Ottawa, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts. For two years in the mid 1970s, he was a member of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa.

It was while working as an assistant to Jean-Luc Pépin, Minister of Transport in the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, from 1980 to 1983, that Bélanger began his career on Parliament Hill. In the 1980s, he also worked as a financial advisor and a stockbroker. At the beginning of the 1990s, he was the Chief of Staff to the Chair of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton.

Career in Federal Politics

Mauril Bélanger entered federal politics in February 1995 when he won the by-election to replace Liberal Member of Parliament Jean-Robert Gauthier, who had been named to the Senate by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Bélanger was elected a total of eight times in his Ottawa-Vanier riding (in 1995, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2015) and he was a member of Parliament for just over 20 years (1995-2015).

Chrétien, Jean 1997
Jean Chrétien on the eve of the 1997, which he and his Liberal Party defended their majority (courtesy Maclean's).
Copps, Sheila
Copps resigned in May 1996 to honour her promise to do so if the Liberals did not cancel the GST. She ran again, however, and won back her seat (courtesy Maclean's).
Martin, Paul Edgar Philippe
The Right Honourable Paul Martin, former prime minister of Canada and leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, 2003-2006 (courtesy Liberal Party of Canada).\r\n
Michael Ignatieff, politician
Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff speaks with the media during a news conference in Ottawa following his appointment as interim leader on 10 Dec 2008.

As a member of Parliament in Jean Chretien’s government, Bélanger was Chair of the Standing Joint Committee on Official Languages and a member of the Standing Joint Committee of the Library of Parliament. Between 1998 and 2000, he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Sheila Copps. In December 2003, when Paul Martin succeeded Jean Chrétien as prime minister, Bélanger joined Cabinet as Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and as party whip. Following the general election of June 2004, Bélanger was again named to Cabinet, where he performed a number of ministerial functions, including as Minister responsible for Official Languages, Associate Minister of National Defence, Minister responsible for Democratic Reform and Minister for Internal Trade.

When the Conservatives took power in 2006, Bélanger was re-elected in his riding. Now in the Official Opposition, Bélanger went on to be critic on questions affecting Canadian Heritage (2006-2007), Infrastructure and Communities (2007), and Official Languages, Canadian Heritage and La Francophonie (2007-2008). In 2010, Bélanger was once again made spokesperson for the Liberal caucus on official languages matters, a role that he kept after the 2011 general election. In May 2012, Bélanger also became the “Liberal Advocate for Co-operatives,” a position that played a crucial role in his political career. Bélanger was re-elected in his Ottawa-Vanier riding on 4 November 2015 when Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party swept into power.

Justin Trudeau
Federal Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau visits Sussex, New Brunswick, in October, during the 2015 Canadian federal election campaign.

Just a few weeks after the election, however, Bélanger was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or Charcot disease). The diagnosis forced him to withdraw his candidacy for the position of Speaker of the House of Commons, which he had had an excellent chance of winning. Bélanger became the honorary spokesperson for the Walk for ALS, an annual campaign held across Canada to support research into this incurable neurodegenerative disease. Bélanger died from the disease on 16 August 2016.

Activism

Bélanger was the co-founder of the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association, created in 2003. The purpose of this association, which Bélanger co-chaired for many years, was to encourage exchanges between Canadian and African parliamentarians by creating friendship groups between Canada and each of the 53 African countries included in the partnership. Starting in May 2012, Bélanger was also a director on the board of the Parliamentary Centre, a non-governmental organization dedicated to strengthening parliamentary democracy in Canada and abroad.

Throughout 2016, Bélanger advocated for the City of Ottawato become officially bilingual in time for the 2017 celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. On 27 January 2016, having lost his voice due to ALS, Bélanger used an electronic voice synthesizer to communicate with the House of Commons. The speech that was written on his tablet was translated into words that were then transmitted throughout the gallery by an electronic voice. It was an historic first. The private member’s bill that he was re-introducing was also highly symbolic because its purpose was to replace a sexist phrase in the English version of the national anthem, “O Canada,” in order to make it more inclusive. Bélanger’s bill proposed replacing the words “true patriot love in all thy sons command with “true patriot love in all of us command.” His first bill was defeated at second reading in April 2015. On Bélanger’s second attempt, the change to the text was adopted by the House of Commons but has yet to be approved by the Senate.

Legacy

Son of a modest local activist who worked at the regional level for the rights of Franco-Ontarians, Bélanger fought relentlessly for affirmation of the francophone community in Ontario. He continually promoted linguistic duality in Canada and advocated for compliance with the Official Languages Act.

As Minister responsible for Official Languages, Bélanger was particularly sensitive to the issue of French in minority situations and used every chance he got to defend the cause. Relying on ironic imagery, Bélanger was pleased to remind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that, having been born in Ottawa when his father was prime minister, Trudeau was “technically” a franco-Ontarian, with all the symbolic implications that went along with it. Throughout his career, Bélanger was closely associated with bills that introduced measures favouring the development of official languages communities that were in minority situations (notably Bill S-3, introduced by Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier before the 2006 general election was called).

Aboriginal affairs were also close to Bélanger’s heart. When it came to such matters, he believed in concrete measures such as improving Indigenous health centres and donating books to Inuit children in Nunavut. Bélanger was also involved in supporting Haitian immigrants (see Caribbean People) and in fighting drug addiction among youth.

In the fall of 2016, under the auspices of the Jean-Luc-Pépin Research Chair, the University of Ottawa launched a lecture series on public policy issues, in honour of Bélanger.

Awards and Honours

Commander of the Order of the Pléiade, Parliamentary Assembly of the Francophonie (2005)

Officer of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary (2007)

Grand-Croix (“Honneur et Mérite”), Republic of Haiti (2016)

Prix Bernard-Grandmaître, Association des communautés francophones d’Ottawa (2016)

Honorary Speaker of the House of Commons of Canada (2016)

Achievement Award, Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (2016)

Award for Outstanding Contribution to Co-op Housing, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (2016)

Prix Boréal, Fédération des communautés francophones et acadiennes du Canada (2016)

La Médaille du 22 mars de l’Hôpital Montfort (Montfort Hospital’s March 22 Medal) (2016)

Communicator of the Year Award from the Ottawa Section of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) (2016)