Earlier this summer, as Ontario Premier David Peterson contemplated calling a fall election, he and his strategists had one main worry. The debate over the Meech Lake accord had added fuel to a bitter controversy already swirling around a new provincial law extending services in French in some parts of the province. Then, in January, the city council of Sault Ste. Marie gained national attention when it passed a resolution declaring that the city would offer services in English only. Peterson denounced that action. But, within weeks, dozens of other Ontario municipalities defiantly passed their own English-only measures. And the premier’s aides warned him that an early election might further inflame the debate. “Peterson was terrified of a [language] backlash,” recalled one Liberal adviser. Party polls, however, suggested that economics—not language—would dominate any election campaign. Now, in the campaign for the Sept. 6 provincial election, that assessment is being tested in the same Northern Ontario city that was the focus of the original language controversy.
From the outset of the election campaign, Sault Ste. Marie has proven to be a volatile battleground. The earlier dispute broke out after a group of francophone parents lobbied the city to provide a new French-only public school and community centre—at an estimated cost of $6 million. About 25,000 of the city’s 83,000 residents—only about 4.5 per cent of whom are francophone—signed a petition demanding that Sault Ste. Marie declare itself unilingually English. City council acceded, by a vote of 11 to 2. The first political casualty of the dispute was Karl Morin-Strom, 38, the New Democratic Party MPP for the local riding since 1985, who criticized the council’s action. Morin-Strom decided against seeking re-election in the face of public animosity. But the new NDP candidate, Tony Martin, is also an opponent of the resolution. As a result, the issue may, in fact, have created an opportunity for the Liberals to elect their first MPP in the riding in 47 years.
Uproar: The premier personally recruited a well-liked former mayor, Donald Macgregor, to carry the Liberal banner. Macgregor has not taken sides in the language dispute, but the issue has placed him on the defensive in the divisive debate. Peterson sparked an uproar in March when he declared that the city council “did not choose to understand” the language issue and dismissed the city’s mayor, Joseph Fratesi, as “a bit player” in the constitutional debate. When the two politicians later appeared
together at the opening ceremonies of the national curling championships at a local arena, spectators greeted the premier with scattered applause and their mayor with a thunderous ovation. Said Conservative candidate John Solski, a Sault Ste. Marie alderman: “Peterson had the audacity to call 25,000 people here ignorant and insulted our mayor.”
Still, the campaign has also seen myriad shifting allegiances that may allow Macgregor to overcome the widespread hostility towards his leader. Tory candidate Solski, who voted for the English-only resolution, for one, was a Liberal party member until two weeks ago. Donald Edwards, representing the Confederation of Regions party in the campaign, was a longtime NDP activist. Even stranger, Mayor Fratesi—who fought two mayoral elections against Macgregor—has endorsed the Liberal candidate. Fratesi explained his decision by noting that the Liberals have committed $68.5 million to relocate the head office of the Ontario Lottery Corp. in his city. And although senior Liberal strategists insist that a Liberal win would constitute a symbolic victory for Peterson’s views on language, Fratesi disagrees. According to the city’s unrepentant mayor,
Macgregor made clear his support for the language resolution before the campaign. “If Macgregor gets elected,” declared Fratesi, “it is because he agreed with what city council did.”
As Macgregor canvassed voters one day last week, no one raised the language issue to thf candidate’s face. But many constituents told a reporter afterward that it would be a factor m their choice of candidate. Housewife Kathy Irvine, for one, said that she would not vote Liberal because of Peterson’s criticisms of the language resolution. Said Irvine: “I stand behind what the mayor did.” But other voters suggested that they will switch to the Liberals—paradoxically, for similar reasons. Harold Osborne, a retired steel-plant worker and former NDP supporter, said that he will not support the party in this election because of MorinStrom’s denunciation of the council’s actions.
“Peterson is about the only one we’ve got now,” said Osborne.
Macgregor also stands to benefit from £ perception that Peterson has distanced himself from Quebec, calling for a strong national government and the involvement of all the provinces in any negotiations on Quebec’s future status. Many voters in Sault Ste. Marie have welcomed Peterson’s new line. As Mac-* gregor prepared to leave one east-end polling district last week, one woman shouted from her porch: “Did you hear David’s speech yesterday? It was nice. It all boiled down to one thing—unity.” If it proves to be widely shared, that sentiment may yet signal an unexpected Liberal victory in the northern heartland of thei backlash against bilingualism.
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